With every doctor in the west named Patel or Habib now facing the prospect that their patients will be staring carefully at their white coats, checking for the outlines of a bomb-jacket, much bewilderment has been expressed at the juxtaposition of the healing profession and the delivery of death.

Indeed, the involvement of doctors with violent political movements runs so deep into the history of modernity that it can’t be dismissed as a coincidence. Key members of the Jacobins, the Terrorist party in 19th century Russia, some leading Bolsheviks, members of the Irgun and of the Palestinian resistance have all come from the medical profession – not to mention Guevara, whose seemingly superhuman resolve was not a little assisted by his regular self-administration of adrenalin shots to treat his asthma.

Peter Goldsworthy, a doctor and writer, reflected on this issue in The Age. Sadly for an unusually perceptive medico\poet, it’s a silly and reductive article, a measure of the current bamboozlement of ‘war on terror’ thinking.
Goldsworthy’s conclusion is that doctors are disproportionately represented because they’re both leaders and intellectuals – and thus prone to the totalitarian thinking of many intellectuals. He wonders how people who have seen or treated burn victims could do more of the same.

True in some cases, but I would have thought another answer was obvious – that some doctors who have been exposed to mass unnecessary suffering arising from poverty and oppression draw on one of a doctor’s key abilities – dispassionate assessment – to conclude that extraordinary measures are necessary.

Guevera – whom Goldworthy rather hysterically (and by tradition argument-losingly) compares to Hitler – might have been drawn to revolution because he saw the appalling results of poverty in rural South America. Judging by Cuba’s health system he did a pretty good job.

One suspects a tour of Africa – a continent dying of preventable diseases – might convince a few doctors that if some well-placed bombs would do something about it, then it might have the same justification as surgery – a necessarily violent procedure for ultimate health.

Fred Hollows’ (and note I’m not accusing him of being a terrorist) youthful stalinism sprang from the same place as his inexhaustible later work and his unchangingly abrasive manner – a determination that while people went blind in their millions unnecessarily extreme action was necessary.

In which light the view from Adelaide looks less like reason and more like negligent complacency – or “therapeutic nihilism” as the Hippocratic Oath has it.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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