J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, August 17, 2007

Medical Men and Revolutionaries

At the beginning of July, after two men drove a flaming S.U.V. into Glasgow’s airport, there was a wave of news stories announcing that all eight people the British government had detained in connection with that case were doctors or medical technicians. That was enough to inspire various fulminating analyses about the supposed paradox that some healers might become attackers.

At the height of the fervor, some right-wing magazines and television commentators even suggested that this case showed how a universal health-care system would bring terrorists into the U.S. of A. The logic of that claim was, to be charitable, far from clear.

All that reporting was historically amnesiac. To begin with, recent history should make people wary about assuming anything about people the British government detains as connected to terrorism, even whether they can actually be charged with any crimes at all. A 26 July New York Times article reported:

Figures released by the Home Office recently showed that between Sept. 11, 2001, and March of this year, 1,228 people were arrested on suspicion of terrorism offenses. Of those, 669 [i.e., 54%] were released without charge.

The data also showed that only 241 [i.e., 20%] had been charged with offenses under terrorism legislation.
In addition, in the past year, the British government held six suspects without charge for 27 or 28 days, the maximum under its harsher 2001 law; three were charged, and three were released.

In sum, recent history shows there’s a greater than 50% chance that a person arrested or detained by the British government on suspicion of involvement in terrorism will be released without charge. Only one in five of such people will be charged with “terrorism offenses.” An individual detainee is two and a half times more likely to be deemed free of all suspicion than to be charged as a terrorist. We should therefore be wary of drawing any conclusions about terrorists from the traits of British detainees—and that’s even before we consider our legal systems’ presumption of innocence.

So far the “terrorist doctors” investigation fits that pattern, though the accuracy of the arrests was increased by the simple fact that two men were caught in the burning S.U.V.—an unquestionably incriminating situation. Of the eight people arrested or detained:
  • Two were pulled out of that vehicle. British police later said those same men were responsible for two car bombs found in London. One of those men has been charged while the other has died.
  • Two other men have been charged, one for “conspiracy to cause explosions” and the other for “failing to disclose information.” The evidence against them won’t be known until their trials. [UPDATE: The case against the latter man “appears to be weakening,” according to the New York Times on 21 August: it rested on the fact that his brother had sent him an email about the Glasgow attack before carrying it out. However, the man didn’t open his brother’s email until ninety minutes after that attack.]
  • Three more detained people—two medical students and the lab tech married to one of the indicted men—were released by the British government without charges. The students weren’t part of a “doctors’ plot”; rather, they were probably arrested only because they had professional contact with the suspects and happened to be Muslim.
  • The case against the eighth person in Australia collapsed once it became clear that prosecutors presented evidence they knew was false; the only real sign of criminality they could offer was that this doctor was second cousin to two suspects in the U.K. The Conservative government’s Immigration Minister tried canceling the doctor’s visa and locking him up for not having one, obviously exploiting immigration policy for political ends—but that’s what Australian Conservative governments do.
So rather than eight doctors involved in this plot, only four men might be involved. And the man who died of his burns wasn’t a medical doctor at all. He was an aerospace engineer who once worked for an outsourcing firm that had contracts with Boeing and Pratt & Whitney. Oddly enough, I can’t find media pundits suggesting that the U.S. defense contractors endanger security by sending work to engineers in developing countries.

It’s quite true that medical doctors have helped to organize or run many larger and more dangerous terrorist or nationalist networks. But American journalists who find that paradoxical should consider details of our country’s own move to independence.

Doctors were among the most active Whigs in pre-Revolutionary Boston. The most radical was Dr. Thomas Young. He left Boston in September 1774, fearing physical attacks by soldiers or Loyalists, but quickly became active in the Patriot movement in Newport and then Philadelphia. He supported the breakaway government of Vermont, suggesting that name for the state, and died of a fever contracted while treating Continental Army soldiers.

Back in Boston, in January 1775 two men were at the top of the Patriot resistance movement: Dr. Joseph Warren (shown above) and Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr. As physicians, they were able to move around town and meet privately with many people without arousing suspicion. (Of course, one of them turned out to be working for both sides.) Dr. John Brooks led the Reading militia on 19 Apr 1775 and eventually became a general.

From New Hampshire, two of the three signers of the Declaration of Independence were physicians: Dr. Josiah Bartlett and Dr. Matthew Thornton. Henry Dearborn was a doctor in that colony before he became a military officer, also eventually a general.

None of those men were terrorists in the modern sense, but to the British authorities of the time they were rebels endangering society. Why were so many physicians drawn to radical politics and war? Personal ambition was often a reason; medicine, politics, and war were all ways for a man to become prominent. But another, more important factor was the same drive that sent those men into medicine: a wish to help others. When they saw a disease in the body politic, they tried to heal it.

What might as first glance look like a disconnect between healing and attacking probably looks quite different to the men who try to do both those things. Even people who put bombs in public places can be convinced that in the long run they’re helping, not hurting.

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