Doctors as Political Tyrants

by Brian Carty, MD, MSPH

Che Guevara, a murderer and executioner, was also an obstetrician

Aren’t they all tyrants, many doctors’ wives and nurses say, facetiously we hope?  I don’t mean know-it-all physicians who are used to running things and getting their way, but violent political tyrants, dictators, or terrorists.  Doctors can be as violent as anyone else.  Doctors can take as much pleasure in political violence as nonmedical people.


Guess what?  Those Terrorists Were Doctors


Several would-be terrorists - Muslim doctors, were intercepted in the UK and Ireland  in 2007 before they could carry out bombings.


An Ugly Stain on the Medical Profession Which Will Never Be Forgotten


The role of World War II Japanese and Nazi doctors in committing medical atrocities and torture is well known.


The Unpleasant Truth About Che Guevara


Che Guevara, a Marxist revolutionary and an obstetrician, actually took pleasure in executions, as described in “Exposing the Real Che Guevara,” by Humberto Fontova:  


There was something seriously wrong with Guevara… (He) seemed to relish it.    He appeared to revel in the bloodletting for its own sake.  You could somehow see it in his face as he watched the men dragged out of their cells. 


Whether doctors are more or less likely than average to be terrorists or inflict political violence is difficult to determine.  But how can members of a profession dedicated to compassion and healing become terrorists or political murderers?


Cutthroats in White Coats”


Theodore Dalrymple, a prison psychiatrist in the UK, in his essay “Cutthroats in White Coats,” discusses some of the reasons why doctors, of all people, might be prone to political violence.  For one thing, Dalrymple feels that medical practice can produce a cynical and disappointing view of human nature.


He also says that doctors are exactly the kind of people one would expect to become terrorists.  Not many doctors, but some.  This is in part because they have the right psychological qualifications, in that they have to be dispassionate in the face of suffering, and may have to cause suffering to achieve a benefit. 


Ideology – A Set of Political Beliefs, Can Lead People Astray


Political violence can result when this emotional distance in the face of suffering is combined with an ideology such as Islamism or Marxism which can lead to sadism and violence.  Educated classes are susceptible to becoming fanatically devoted to certain ideologies which can allow people to commit horrible acts with the intent of somehow producing a better world.  For these people, ideology makes the most absolute evil seem good.


Do You Hear a Ticking Sound When Your Doctor Walks Into the Room?


So should you put your physician through a metal detector before your next office visit?  Probably not. 


A Doctor’s Most Important Possessions Are Reputation and Moral Principles


Despite the chilling examples discussed above, the physician terrorist seems to be rare.  However, even one such example shocks us with extreme violations of the ideals of the medical profession.  Those ideals should be affirmed constantly, and there is no better statement of them than by Dr. Tinsley Harrison in the first 1950 edition of Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine, generally considered the “bible” of internal medicine:


No greater opportunity or obligation can fall the lot of a human being than to be a physician.  In the care of the suffering he needs technical skill, scientific knowledge, and human understanding.  He who uses these with courage, humility, and wisdom will provide a unique service for his fellow man and will build an enduring edifice of character within himself.  The physician should ask of his destiny no more than this, and he should be content with no less.


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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }


Albert M. Balesh, M.D. 11.19.08 at 7:01 am

I have always suspected that physicians would make admirable terrorists, and your piece, Dr. Carty, “Cutthroats in White Coats,” confirms my suspicions. Perhaps the “dark side” of man’s so-called noble animus becomes unmasked, when the protection of a white coat uncages a superego long held at bay by a series of public checks and balances and constraining stereotypes. Physicians are not “holier than thou,” and deserve no special treatment. Their position in the food chain in every nation other than the U.S. earns them no special privilege. It is high time we treat them for what they are, servants of the public health, nothing more, nothing less, and not marvel when they fall victim to the same human shortcomings to which we are all victim. Thank you.

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