August 2008

Meet Our Featured Guest Columnist:
Dr. Bernard Lown

co-founded the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War with Dr. Evgueni Chazov, a Soviet cardiologist. The organization won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985.

Q: How did you first get involved in health and human rights issues?

A: In 1961, I had invented a new way of restoring a normal heartbeat, the defibrillator, and I was riding on a crest of a wave. At this point, a friend of mine asked me to go listen to a Brit, a professor from Britain, Philip Noel-Baker. I said, "Why do I want to listen to Philip Noel-Baker?" He says, "He won a Nobel prize." So I said, "In medicine?" "No, in peace." So I laughed and I was not interested, but he pushed me hard and I went to hear him talk. That talk was chilling. He said that humankind has no future. There will not be any civilization by the year 2000 if we do not tame the nuclear beast. His talk had an enormous effect on me. I mean so profound; here in my career, I was working on sudden cardiac death, the leading cause of fatality in the industrialized world. And now I realized that sudden death will not be cardiac but nuclear. So, I called together a group of people... and the more we learned, the more we were horrified at the criminality, at the immorality, at the injustice of it. So, we began to talk and we founded an organization, Physicians for Social Responsibility. But our major contribution, which made a profound impact, was to carry out a study of the effects, the medical effects, on Boston of a thermonuclear strike, and this was extraordinary; I mean extraordinary even now. When I reflect all these years later, it sends a chill through my body because a thermonuclear bomb dropped on Boston at the time would have killed two-thirds of Boston population. Two million would have been dead within about 24 hours. Half a million would be fatally injured. Of Boston's 6,000 physicians, 5,000 would be dead; 1,000 would be left to take care of casualties more than the mind could imagine and they had nothing to offer. There were no medicines, no appliances, nothing. So the doctor had to conceive a new role, a role of euthanasia. If he was a humane figure and so indescribable suffering, what is his duty? But society did not bequeath him with the responsibility or the legality or the power to do away with human being, nor is that the calling of a physician to kill people; but, that's the only thing left to him. We wrote it up and we published it in the New England Journal of Medicine. It occupied an entire issue and the next there were headlines all over the world and we changed reality. We also helped stimulate such studies all across the world, the same model that we used of study, the same scientific analysis was utilized in Germany, in Holland, in Britain, in Cleveland, in Pittsburgh, in San Francisco. So we created a dialogue and the most important thing in a democratic society is an informed citizenry that engages in dialogue.

Q: How did International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War begin?
A: In 1978, I'm standing outside... It's a balmy, beautiful spring day. My wife and I are reflecting that we have everything. We have good kids. We have enough to live on. I have a good profession. She has a good profession. Louise turns to me, she says, "Are you happy?" I say, "No. I'm miserable." I say, "Are you happy?" She says, "No, I'm miserable, why?" "I mean what will we leave to our children?" The world is about to be destroyed, the accumulation, the stockpiling of nuclear weapons was enough at the time to provide nearly three to four tons of dynamite for every man, woman and child living on earth equivalent in nuclear weapons. There were about 50,000 nuclear weapons the Russians and the Americans amassed and they kept amassing them more and the whole instability of that because were now on missiles and it took about 25 minutes for a missile to go from United States to the Soviet Union or the Soviet Union back here and the moment they launched, what do you do? You launch back, so you destroy them because they destroyed us and we leave no world at all. We've got to do something and I said, "I have an idea." What is holding back any joint address to this issue is a lack of trust. We don't trust the Russians. When you begin to talk to any American about the terrible dilemma we found ourselves, they say, "But you can't trust the Russians. You can't trust the Russians. You can't trust the Russians." I heard it a thousand times if once. Those five words paralyzed all activity because we demonized them. They weren't people. In order to incinerate, destroy, immolate a nation, commit genocide, you must regard them as subhuman, as the Nazis regarded Jews or gypsies or homosexuals or whatever. You must demonize the people so they're not human, and how can we reestablish our respective humanity? That was the big question. Why shouldn't doctors do that? Because after all, as doctors we collaborated even the worst times of the Cold War. We have a common language. We have common goals. We have a shared calling. We have a profession that is ancient that goes back for several thousand years.

Q: What are some of the successes you have seen?

A: The critical issue in any movement is recruit, mobilize, seduce the young. Without the young, you have no future, and that is what made IPPNW successful because right at the outset, when we had no money, we had no office; we were given an office on Spa's Drugstore, the second floor there was a dingy room. The only way we could get in is walk behind the counter and go up a back stairs. That was our office. We had no secretary. We had nothing, but we were able to get first year Harvard medical students and they were dynamos. When we got to the first meeting at Airlie House and we invited seventy of the leading doctors of the world to come, they traveled to airports. These kids never slept for a week. They were up morning, noon and night, morning, noon and night, serving coffee, writing, drafting documents, circulating them, making sure that everything works, and I was impressed. Without that energy, we could not have taken off, and time and time again--I saw it in Sweden, I saw it in Norway, I saw it in Germany. It's the youth movement of the doctors' movement that not only provided the energy but shamed the old doctors to get off their rear, to get off their butt because the moment they were active and the teachers weren't, they became teachers to their teachers. So it was enormously important lesson for me, always when you get a movement up, concentrate on young people involved. If they are involved, there is a future to the movement.

Q: What are some of the challenges?

A: Now in terms of the nuclear issue, it is a very difficult issue by virtue of the fact that it's totally forgotten and it's very buried underground. There's no nuclear testing, which gives it visibility. It's all secret, all classified, no word out. So how do you get people to begin to react to what is invisible, untouchable, ...and absent? It's like working on ghosts, right? Ghost stories. What do you do? This is a big challenge, but it is a challenge that can be linked up with what is very visible, and that is militarism and war. If we begin to organize our militaries and war and show nuclearism as its ugly face--think for one minute: we have defeated Adolph Hitler and we have adopted his morality? Because what did Adolph Hitler do? He industrialized genocide, right? We have done one better. Hitler could kill one at a time. We could kill a million at a time. He could incinerate one body at a time, one body at a time. We can incinerate a whole city. Look at the immorality of it all, and nobody says how can a civilized people, a religious people, a believing people, who claims to be democratic which means to respect the right others; what is more important, right, than the right to life? In that type of argument, you can get young people involved.

Q: How can young people make a difference?

A: Most Americans say, "oh I can't make a difference. Governments are corrupt. Politicians are venal. I can't make a difference." Wrong. You're wrong on all scores. You can make a difference, but you have to raise your voice, but you can't raise your voice in a shout before you know what you're shouting about, before you understand the issues, before you have credibility with the constituency you are shouting to or getting them to join. All of that demands organization, engagement, respect for others, humility and all of these qualities.