Half-Pint Heroes

This week’s news brought the remarkable story of Wesley Autrey, a 50 year-old Vietnam veteran who jumped in front of a subway train to save a man who had fallen onto the tracks while having a seizure.

18-year-old Cameron Hollowpeter suffered a seizure while Autrey, accompanied by his two daughters, was waiting on the platform for the subway. Hollowpeter fell to the tracks after losing his balance, as an incoming train approached the platform. Autrey jumped down to save him — as his daughters looked on — initially attempting to pull him out, but realizing with split-second judgment that there was insufficient time to extract the still-seizing man from the tracks. He threw himself over Hollowpeter, wrapping him in his body to protect his flailing arms, in the shallow ditch between the electrified rails. The train screeched to a halt after passing overhead with but inches to spare, miraculously leaving both men without serious injury.

True acts of heroism are of course newsworthy, and at once both extraordinary and sobering (would you or I have done what Wes Autrey did?) — and draw a sharp and unflattering contrast with what often passes for heroism in our modern culture.

We hear of heroes daily in the papers and on TV: the fireman who rescues a child from a burning building; the policeman shot in the line of duty; the soldier who throws himself on a grenade to save the lives of his buddies. Such acts are heroism indeed, comprised of its core virtue: the willingness to sacrifice one’s life or well-being for another. We say this although we expect such things of these men and women, for this is their chosen calling and career, one which by its nature places them in harm’s way for the benefit of others.

Cheap heroism seeps deeply into our culture like some toxic effluent, poisoning even simple principled acts with a pretension of greatness.

Yet there is increasingly a class of acts now painted as “heroism” which deserves no such depiction. Such cheap heroes — the civic equivalent of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s cheap grace Christians — seem to grow in number daily. They make no sacrifices, take no risks, suffer no losses when their “heroic” deeds are done. In a society increasing bereft of moral standards and the simplest traits of noble character and integrity, we paint a heroic stamp of approval on increasingly pathetic gestures, gilding our self-serving deeds with a thin gloss of glory.
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Embryonic Stem Cells

A.M. MoonIf you have any interest in the ongoing debate, ethical issues, and clinical promise of embryonic stem cell research, you should take a few minutes and read this excellent article by Maureen L. Condic at the always-excellent First Things magazine.

Dr. Condic is an associate professor of neurobiology and anatomy at the University of Utah School of Medicine and conducts research on the development and regeneration of the nervous system.

You will find the article immensely helpful at clearing away the fog generated by ESCR proponents and their supporters in the media, politics, and the shallow, vapid, intellectual pools of Hollywood.

Do yourselves a favor and give this a read — and save a copy as a reference for the next time someone waxes poetic about their promise, or the “cruelty” of exercising the utmost caution in pushing ahead with such research.

Libertarianism & Morality

This essay was originally posted in November 2004.
nebulaOn April 25th 1990, the long-awaited Hubble space telescope was launched. In the planning stages since 1967, delayed in deployment for 4 years by the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, scientists were ecstatic at its potential to view deep space as never before from above the atmosphere’s distorting optical envelope. Within days their excitement turned to dismay, as pictures from Hubble returned out of focus.

The giant mirror, 94 inches in diameter, had a spherical aberration. When the mirror was being polished to its correct shape, the device used to test its curvature–called a null corrector–had been made to the wrong specifications. Thus, when the null corrector indicated that the mirror was perfect, it was in fact slightly aspherical. The extremely faint light of distant celestial objects could not therefore be sharply directed to the focal point, resulting in a halo effect and a fuzzy image. Upon investigation, the problem was found to be due to the interchange of metric and English measurements when engineering the testing device. Subsequent space shuttle repairs rendered the optics perfect again, giving rise to the spectacular photographs which the Hubble telescope has since obtained.

In the case of Hubble’s mirror, an inadvertent change of standards, resulting in an aberration 1/50th the diameter of a human hair, nearly doomed a multi-million dollar space project. Consider the likelihood of success if each of the engineers on the project had been allowed to use their own set of standards. Yet in the realm of human behavior and morality, an idea preposterous to a scientist is widely accepted as legitimate, even desirable.
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Moving the Ancient Boundaries – I

Do not move the ancient boundary stone set up
    by your forefathers.
        — Proverbs 22:28 —

old houseAncient wisdom: a sage injunction uttered in a time when simple shepherds and farmers parsed out land for grazing and grain, speaking to the prudence of respecting contracts, negotiated agreements with those with whom we live, to abide in a measure of peace. Be honest; respect the property and possessions of those with whom you must abide; do not trade peaceful relations for parcels of land.

Yet like so much of this ancient book of Proverbs, its well runs far deeper than it appears, with ageless wisdom waiting for the discerning, those open to its application in different days and other ages. And so it seems that we, as a culture, have been hard at work for decades, if not longer, moving the boundary stones set up by our forefathers. These markers today are not simple rocks in fields or walls on hills to mark water rights or restrain wandering sheep, but are rather the cultural and moral underpinnings of that which we call Western civilization. We are busy cutting wood from the pilings to add garlands to the gables, and wondering why the house leans so far off vertical.
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Euthanasia Investigation in New Orleans:
Medical Personel Charged

syringeFor those who may have read my earlier posts (here, here, and here) about the possibility of euthanasia at a hospital in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricae Katrina, you may be interested in the following report on the conclusion of an investigation by the Louisiana Attorney General, just reported by CNN:

NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (CNN) — In the desperate days after hurricane Katrina struck, a doctor and two nurses at a flooded New Orleans hospital allegedly killed four patients by giving them a lethal drug cocktail, Louisiana’s top law enforcement official said Tuesday.

“We’re talking about people that pretended that maybe they were God,” Attorney General Charles C. Foti Jr. said, announcing second-degree murder charges against Dr. Anna Pou, Lori L. Budo and Cheri Landry.

“This is not euthanasia. It’s homicide,” Foti said.

The charges stem from the post-Katrina deaths of some patients at New Orleans Memorial Medical Center.

An affidavit said tests determined that a lethal amount of morphine was administered on September 1 to four patients ages 62, 66, 89 and 90. Hurricane Katrina swamped the city on August 29.

According to the court document, the morphine was paired with midazolam hydrochloride, known by its brand name Versed. Both drugs are central nervous system depressants. Taken together, Foti said, they become “a lethal cocktail that guarantees that you die.”

The doctor and nurses were taken into custody late Monday, following a 10-month investigation that continues. Each was charged with four counts of being a principal to second-degree murder and released on $100,000 bond.

The original reports showed up in a British tabloid not known for its reliability, and this sourcing, as well as some of the details therein, led to widespread scepticism about their reliability. However, interviews with physicians and health care workers at Memorial Hospital raised troubling questions as well, and a formal investigation was launched. The investigation was delayed by the reluctance of the involved hospital personal to testify, as well as the difficulty of obtaining autopsy evidence on the badly decomposed bodies after the fact.

What struck me the most, at the time I first posted it, was the vehemence of some commenters about how ridiculous this report was. One suspects there will be no humble pie eaten by those who sarcastically castigated me for posting on such obviously fictitious urban legends.

But sometimes the truth can be more frightening than fiction.

UPDATE: Here’s some earlier media links filling in some detals of the investigation as it unfolded (I’ll keep this updated as more becomes available):

An Other Eye

In one of the more moving and powerful essays I have read in some time, Gerard Van der Leun gives us a glimpse of the heart–not merely the warm, affectionate, tender place we normally associate with that term, but also its dark recesses, the hidden caves and dank caverns where, were we to be honest, far more of our lives are lived then we would ever care to admit. For the heart, we are quick to believe, is a place of genuine goodness, occasionally tainted by weakness or a justifiable self-interest, small dark clouds in an otherwise seamless blue sky. But the truth, were it to be known, is that there lies within our hearts a darkness, an energy both powerful and driving, which rules and dominates our lives, disguised but by a thin veneer of social acceptability and pretentious purity.

We live our lives thinking highly of ourselves and less of others, bestowing upon them our graces and gifts like laurels tossed from the train of a conquering king, each leaf a precious symbol of our goodness and generosity. Yet in the darkest hours of night, were we receptive to truth, we would hear the demons of our souls arise to carry on their conversations, revealing the true motives of our heart and the vacuities of our virtue.

To make a change of which Gerard speaks so eloquently is not a work of the will, nor of the intellect, nor the virtuous fruit of some project of self-improvement: it is in fact a work of grace. It is a grace which begins in that most difficult of visions: the ability to see ourselves honestly, without charade or deceit, to stare unblinking into the dark heart which dwells within.

I have known of the hatred of which he speaks: an energy so forceful as to terrify a sane man–but sanity is not the lens by which our hatred is viewed. For we, so discerning and perceptive about the simple and superficial, lose all ability to distinguish love from hatred, righteousness from brutality. We have lost the capacity–if indeed we ever had it–to discern that which is true from that which is deceit, and transform our very demons into something most desirable.

We look with great condescension upon those poor souls drinking screw-top wine from brown paper bags, or mainlining some medicinal salvation through oft-used needles. Yet we ourselves are addicts, each of us: addicted to the power which hatred gives us over those who have harmed us, whether in reality or in perception. There is in our inner rage a rush, a high, an intoxicating euphoria which provides great pleasure even while it destroys our souls and poisons our spirits. We lust for more, our minds transformed through chemicals no less powerful than those purloined from pushers, feeding our addiction with ever-spiraling fantasies of destruction and revenge upon the object of our wrath.

To change–to find release from these strong chains which bind us to hopelessness and hatred–is one of life’s true miracles. For there is no formula, no therapy, no mood-enhancing medication which can bring about this metamorphosis: we must, by grace, see those whom we hate with another eye. It is an eye which sees the deep wounds inflicted by another upon us, yet which sees as well those wounds we ourselves have inflicted. It is an eye which remembers the treasured things, those good things, which fostered the depth and richness of relationship which, in true irony, became such fertile ground for hatred and harm. For to open the heart to love is to expose it to grave danger, for only in the transparency of the heart can such severe wounds be suffered.

Yet when that brokenness takes place, that surrender which hands over the sword of revenge in return for the white flag of forgiveness, there comes a peace, a transformation, a healing which brings the soul one step closer to that ephemeral thing we call wholeness. There is, to be sure, a necessary loss in such surrender: for we have given up the right, the power, the control, the delusion that we may find by revenge a peace which is not in its capacity to give. For when we surrender, we win; when we submit, we are victorious; when we give up, we gain immeasurably more than anything we may have lost.

Read Gerard’s essay–no, more than read, absorb it into the depths of your spirit. And muster up the courage thereby to face down those demons dwelling in the depths of your own heart.

Note: The title of this post is not accidentally misspelled–I was informed that the original title (correctly spelled) was copyrighted by an eye care site by that name, who requested that it be changed.

Head of the Snake

If you read nothing else this weekend, you should read Michael J. Totten’s Head of the Snake post at his excellent Middle East Journal blog. Michael is one of the growing number of independent journalists who are breaking out of the rut into which their mainstream brethren have fallen, and bringing us the kind of reporting top-notch journalism should (and used to) deliver. Michael, who has extensive time and experience in the Middle East (including Libya and an extended stay in Lebanon) is now travelling through Kurdish Iraq. He has visited the genocide museum in northeastern Iraq, which has preserved the horrors of Saddam Hussein’s brutal extermination and torture of the Kurds.

It is not an easy read, but an important one nevertheless. We live in an age where moral and cultural relativism reigns unchallenged, where Palestinian suicide bombers and Israeli defense measures are treated as equivalent, where Bush = Hitler, where Ted Kennedy tells us that Sadaam’s prisons have reopened under U.S management because a few prisoners had to wear women’s underwear or be photographed naked. Though we resist it, evil must sometimes be seen face-to-face, at its very darkest: Michael shows us one of Sadaam’s prisons, in all its horror. Go, look, ponder, reflect–and never forget.

P.S. — Be sure to click his Paypal button, and contribute. Michael is doing this on his own dime, and should have your support.

Euthanasia Investigation in New Orleans

hospital bed

In the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, there were some scattered reports–in an admittedly questionable media source (a British tabloid)–of euthanasia of patients trapped in a New Orleans hospital. I discussed the initial media report here, and did a follow up post here which expanded on the questionable nature of the sources and some of the comments in response. In brief, there was widespread skepticism from some commenters on the veracity of this report, which was, in their opinion, pure urban legend–and I was castigated for lending credence to such an outrageous myth.

Apparently they never got the word to the Louisiana Attorney General.

CNN is now reporting that a very active investigation is currently underway of Memorial Hospital–where 45 patients were found dead–by the Attorney General’s office. This investigation to date has uncovered additional testimony that euthanasia was actively discussed and may well have been performed:

The Louisiana attorney general’s office is investigating allegations that mercy killings occurred and has requested that autopsies be performed on all 45 bodies taken from the hospital after the storm.Orleans Parish coroner Frank Minyard said investigators have told him they think euthanasia may have been committed.

“They thought someone was going around injecting people with some sort of lethal medication,” Minyard said.

A nurse manager, Fran Butler, is quoted as saying:

“My nurses wanted to know what was the plan? Did they say to put people out of their misery? Yes. … They wanted to know how to get them out of their misery,” she said.

Butler also told CNN that a doctor approached her at one point and discussed the subject of putting patients to sleep, and “made the comment to me on how she was totally against it and wouldn’t do it.”

Dr. Bryant King, a physician who was present at the hospital, was also interviewed by the AG’s office, and recounts his story:

But King said he is convinced the discussion of euthanasia was more than talk. He said another doctor came to him at 9 a.m. Thursday and recounted a conversation with a hospital administrator and a third doctor who suggested patients be put out of their misery.

King said that the second physician — who opposed mercy killing — told him that “this other [third] doctor said she’d be willing to do it.”

About three hours later, King said, the second-floor triage area where he was working was cleared of everyone except patients, a second hospital administrator and two doctors, including the physician who had first raised the question of mercy killing…

One of the physicians then produced a handful of syringes, King said.

“I don’t know what’s in the syringes. … The only thing I heard the physician say was, ‘I’m going to give you something to make you feel better,’ ” King said….

King said he decided he would have no part of what he believed was about to happen.

Time will tell how this investigation turns out–and it may ultimately be very difficult to prove what happened at Memorial Hospital, given the poor condition of the bodies and the difficulty in distinguishing therapeutic pain management and sedation versus the same drugs used in doses sufficient to kill. One suspects that those involved in such actions–if they occurred–will be loath to admit it–and likely would have been careful to avoid witnesses, if at all possible.

And I’m sure those who so vehemently argued the absurdity of this story will belly up to the bar and confess they may have overreacted just a bit–but I’m not holding my breath waiting.

Update 10-27-2005: CNN is reporting that dozens of subpoenas have been issued to find out what happened at Memorial:

The subpoenas were served on employees of all levels at Memorial Medical Center, which is owned by Tenet Healthcare, because “cooperation, lately, has not been as good as I had hoped,” Foti said.

The subpoenas require that people appear before investigators for questioning.

“Some people were not coming forward. We learned Tenet sent out a letter that had a chilling effect,” Foti said. “We had no choice but to issue these subpoenas.”

“They [Tenet] seem to be in a position of protecting themselves, while we are just trying to get to the facts of what happened at the hospital,” the attorney general said.

Stay tuned–this may begin to get very interesting…