Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Hiding the evidence

In The Nazi Doctors (Basic Books, 1986), Robert J. Lifton explains the disquiet and difficulty that medical doctors new to Auschwitz experienced during their first experiences with the selection process, the sorting of prisoners into two groups, those to go to the gas chambers immediately, and those to be killed later. The doctors made peace with the system by telling themselves and each other that the benefits to the German people outweighed the harm to the non-Aryans they were killing. They told themselves and each other that it was their duty as doctors to treat the country by eliminating the infection of Jews, Poles, Gypsies, the mentally ill, the infirm, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others deemed a risk to German racial purity. They might not really like it, and they might wish there was another way, but it fell to them as medical doctors to perform this healing task.

Everyone involved in the endeavor seems to have had pretty much the same outlook. They felt that, though odious, the job was needed and noble. If the Nazi’s had won, maybe we would now have a day off once a year to commemorate the ethnic cleansing.

In spite of their mutual support for the work, many of them must have known all along that what they were doing was immoral. As the war was nearing its final days, the Nazis worked hard to destroy the evidence of their work, going so far as to dismantle gas chambers and digging up bodies and crushing them.

There is something about all of this self-assurance during the act, the secrecy, and the effort to hide the evidence that suggests something about the psychology of vivisectors today.

The vivisectors commonly say that they don’t necessarily like hurting and killing animals, but that there is no other way; it’s just a necessary evil.

The details of what they do and how they treat the animals are carefully guarded. The data that is released is carefully constrained. No candid images, no narratives of the animals’ distress are commonly released to the public.

When the public learns of the existence of such data and asks for it, it is withheld, extensively censored prior to release, or destroyed outright.

Tours are carefully orchestrated strolls through Potemkin villages.

What this suggests is that, like the Nazi doctors, today’s vivisectors try to convince the public and themselves that they are doing good work and yet all the while know that what they are doing is wrong, or else, if they have convinced themselves that a career spent hurting and killing is somehow noble, that few others, if given the chance to look over their shoulder, would agree.

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