Friday, December 12, 2008

Agent Orange

Beyond Physics and Chemistry

The lessons from the Agent Orange

My interest in politics is often judged to be incompatible with my career in medicine by a good deal of my friends and well-wishers. Why dip hand in the filthy game of power and wealth? This is the frequent question with sincere advice to practice the sacred profession to save the lives. This is the only way of leading a decent life, they say. On the other extreme are the students affiliated to the student wings of political parties who advocate an active role of students in politics. The dominance of the disruptive attitudes over their ideological instances has been, however, a stain on the images of these organizations.

I maintain a somewhat middle pathway in this dispute though my fear is not of being labeled an extremist. Many observations in the past few years have urged me to argue against the arbitrary dissociation of our professional roles from the social and thus political responsibilities.

Dioxin is a chemical used as a herbicide that causes defoliation or fall of leaves. It is also a stable carcinogen and can cause 28 lethal diseases. Being extremely stable and able to cross placenta it can harm the later generations too. This is exactly where the role of the science and the scientists ends and that of the politicians begin. The politicians of the most prosperous democracy of the world used 366 kg of such lethal chemical in a war orchestrated by themselves. That affected 4.2 million people out of a total population of 40 millions in Vietnam, killing 500,000 persons and the other 650,000 are already identified with several forms of physical and mental deformities that can be identified with dioxin. What could the poor scientists do? When the effect of this notorious Agent Orange came to be known, 5,000 US scientists, of whom 17 were Nobel Laureates and 129 were the members of the Academy of Sciences demanded withdrawal of chemical agencies from the warfare. But it was their job to demand and the politician’s job was to continue the disastrous killing spree and thus nothing changed.

How does our profession advise us to react in such a circumstance? At most, we can avoid reading or hearing the news if we can’t cope with the emotions of ire, shame or fear. Otherwise enjoy the life with whatever we earn and live like the every other content gentle person in the neighborhood.

This has been a great paradox in the lives of the geniuses of the every other field. Those 17 Nobel Laureates of the US whose demands to stop poisoning the innocent civilians were rejected may be wondering: the breakthroughs that they achieved in different fields of science can well be used in the future to wipe the people out.

In this bloody political turf of power, prejudice and inhuman cruelty, where do we stand then? Can we really boycott all this by merely isolating ourselves from the politics? Can any of our efforts to resist against this insanity be significant? Or should we seek asylum with the aggressors to be secure under their umbrella soaked in the blood of speechless millions? Should we discover more precise and lethal methods and offer them in order to appease them? After all do we have any moral responsibility to such genocides committed as we condone?

The answers to these questions are obviously tough but it is not easy to escape them too. Conscience of a professional often gets hurt at the moments he thinks seriously about these issues.

Of course the US is not the only aggressor of the humanity though it leads the category till now. Innumerable power centers throughout the world, many of them puppet of the US, few of them opposing it and many others with apparently absent link with it are in the race. The challenges to the anti-establishment forces, especially those who have respect to human dignity, are tough worldwide.

I have no delusion of uprooting the current global and the state order with protests from the professionals. But the life other than the professional that we lead is also equally important. The significance of the world outside our office

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