Doctors as Terrorists: When Healers Do Harm


When physicians complete their rigorous medical education and receive the title of Doctor of Medicine, they are administered the Hippocratic Oath, a solemn vow of ethical behavior attributed to the famous ancient Greek physician Hippocrates. The Hippocratic Oath begins with a promise to “First, do no harm.” It came as a particularly disturbing shock, therefore, when international media reported that all eight suspects arrested in connection with the recent terrorist attacks in London and Glasgow were expatriate medical professionals employed by the British National Health Service. The first suspect to be formally charged is Bilal Abdulla, 27, the passenger in the gas cannister-laden Jeep that crashed into an entrance to Glasgow Airport, who was trained as a doctor in Baghdad and was registered with the British Medical Council in 2004. Dr. Abdulla worked at the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Paisley as a diabetes specialist. The driver of the Jeep has been identified as Khalid Ahmed, a doctor from Lebanon, who was rescued from the burning vehicle by security guards and is recovering from his severe burns at a hospital. All six other suspects received medical training and took an oath to use that training to heal the sick and wounded.

A letter to the editor by Robert J. Louden in the July 7 edition of The New York Times cogently summarizes the shocking contradiction, noting that “much of the media coverage of the recent attempts and attacks in London and Glasgow has focused on the apparent differences between physician as helper and killer. Unfortunately, not all physicians adhere to the admonition, ‘first, do no harm.'”

Sadly, Louden’s letter is all too true. St. Louisan Hedy Wachenheimer Epstein, whose parents had been killed at Auschwitz, returned to Europe after the war and joined other Jewish refugees on the staff of the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal in 1946. As detailed in an interview in the St. Louis Jewish Light in its June 6, 1973 edition, a major assignment for her was researching for the trial of 28 Nazi physicians and others for medical experiments on concentration camp inmates. Among the defendants was Karl Brandt, M.D., personal physician to Adolf Hitler and Wolfram Sievers, director of the Institute for Scientific Research. Sievers, described as “satanic-looking,” had a personal hobby of collecting human skulls of a particular size. A female attendant, Dr. Herta Oberhauser, was convicted for slashing the back part of inmates’ legs and deliberately implanting bacteria and other infections to watch the results. Of course the notorious Dr. Joseph Mengele, the so-called “Angel of Death” at Auschwitz decided who would live or die at the death camp, and conducted infamous experiments on twins and other inmates at the camps.

In Jewish history, the singular example of a medical doctor gone mad is that of Dr. Baruch Goldstein, the Brooklyn-born physician who went on a shooting rampage at the mosque located at the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron in March 1994, killing at least 30 Muslim worshippers at the traditional burial place of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca and Leah, a site holy to Jews and Muslims.

Immediately, the attacks were strongly condemned by both Israeli President Ezer Weizman and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who disarmed the tiny extremist Jewish factions Kach and Kahane Chai.

Locally, Kim Bell in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported on July 2 that a group of about 20 Muslim physicians called a news conference to condemn the terrorist attacks in Great Britain said to involve doctors and medical students. Bell reports that Muslim doctors in the Greater St. Louis area say they are “trying to be more vocal in denouncing terrorism. We condemn the ‘crazies’ who are ‘misguided’ and did those acts.” Bell quotes Dr. Ghazala Hayat, a professor of neurology at St. Louis University as saying, “This is actually sickening and shocking to doctors, that this would hapen.” Bell adds that British Muslim communities have taken out newspaper ads condemning the attacks, and quotes Dr. Khaled Hamid, an allergist with local offices as saying, “As a community we are in pain. As physicians, we are in twice the pain,” said Hamid, a board member for the Council of American-Islamic Relations.

The strong statements by local, national and British Muslim medical and community relations leaders are indeed welcome. If medical doctors, rigorously trained to heal the sick and wounded can be so infected with hateful propaganda as to commit insane acts of wanton and cruel terrorism, it is absolutely essential that responsible members of the Muslim and other religious communities not only condemn such attacks, but re-double the efforts to counter the teaching of hatred.