Dr. Pauline Chen, in a piece for the NY Times last week, writes about the daunting moments right before a surgeon-in-training first takes scalpel to flesh. I remember my first incision as an intern as well. I barely broke the skin, so tentative were my motions. But after a while, the blade sinks deeper, the blood runs, and you don't even notice it anymore. It's like you aren't doing it to a real live human, so detached your act of physical violence seems--in this draped-off, sterile setting-- from the smiling, affable patient you just spoke to in the pre-op area. Dr. Chen attributes this to an "habituation" process that occurs over time. (I disagree with her on principle, and will have to adress why in a different post).
But then she takes a logical leap, presumably for the purpose of making some sort of poetic analogy, to compare the habituation that occurs during surgical training with the fact that the Bush Adminstration seemlessly implemented a state sponsored, systematic torture program that was carried out by willing participants. I'm not exactly sure what she's trying to get at here. That surgeons are similar to torturers in that they "get acclimated" to the commision of violence and can thus tolerate it? That torturers diverge from surgeons only in a manner of means and ends? Really, the only message to me is the patently obvious one that unpleasant acts become easier over time to the person who commits them. In this sense, a surgeon is a lot like the serial killer who perfects his craft the more the knife is brought to flesh. I guess that's true but it's an inconsequential truth; it represents willful neglect of the fundamental characteristics that differentiate the surgeon from the torturer. It's like saying Mt Everest and the hill in my backyard are similar because they're both examples of terrestrial elevations.
Torture involves the complete subjugation of a captive, helpless human being by any means for the purpose of eliciting answers that the torturer wants to hear. A surgeon cuts an anesthetized patient (after getting informed consent) for the purpose of alleviating the patient's conscious suffering. The fact that torturers "get used" to unspeakable cruelty is illustrative of Hannah Arendt's "banality of evil", where a seemingly average, normal citizen (think of Adolf Eichmann and all the number-cruncher accountant types who carried out the fine details of Hitler's Final Solution) could stoop to the level of pure evil. That a surgeon is able to quickly slice into a patient's belly without any qualms is just emblematic of the fact that he/she isn't bothered by the sight of blood, knowing that the patient cannot feel anything, knowing that the purpose of the procedure is to make the patient feel better.
Dr Chen has written some good pieces since taking up the NY Times gig. But on this one, she misses the mark widely....