Saturday, August 20, 2011

Celebrating the Continued Health of a Mass Murderer

The second best known man in Libya as I write this—maybe the best known by the time you read this, if events in Tripoli play out the way they might—isn’t exactly a household name. Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, anyone? Ah, but if I call him simply the Lockerbie Bomber, you’re likely to know exactly who I’m talking about.

There is a special ring of hell reserved for this son of a bitch as far as I’m concerned: the college-aged daughter of a friend of mine was one of his 270 victims on that December day in 1988. So I was more than a little pissed off that this despicable excuse for a human being was released by Scottish authorities two years ago this weekend on “compassionate grounds” because he was dying of prostate cancer and had only three months to live. I freely admit that my humanitarian instincts are less foregrounded than I perhaps might like them to be in situations like this. I would be perfectly happy to have Mr. al-Megrahi die a protracted and agonizing death, and the sooner the better.

His release was controversial for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that the propinquity of the words “compassion” and “al-Megrahi” in the same sentence was just a little too much to swallow for a lot of people. Even more problematic, there was speculation in venues no less august than the Sunday Times that the release would oh-so-coincidentally benefit BP and perhaps provide the West, the UK in particular, with a little advantage in their competition with Russia to acquire some of Libya’s oil rights. There has also long been a complex conspiracy theory according to which al-Megrahi was in fact innocent all along, with the real culprits being Iran-backed Palestinians… or the CIA… or little green men from Mars. But let’s face it, if the clamoring is sufficient to make the powers-that-be have to say that the decision was made for compassionate reasons alone, it doesn’t look good for anyone.

What we didn’t know at the time was that al-Megrahi would still be alive and appearing at a televised rally alongside Moammar Gadhafi some two years after he was given only three months to live, an eventuality that was already causing embarrassment to Scottish authorities a year ago. Last August, Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray claimed that Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill had been “incompetent” in not getting clear and unequivocal evidence of al-Megrahi’s imminent demise: “A year ago I said this decision was wrong because the balance between justice and compassion was wrong, but a year later even that element of the decision, the medical evidence, now has very significant doubt cast on it.”

Of course, the medical opinion in question, that of Dr. Andrew Fraser, turns out to have been wrong. Maybe. The thing is, it has now been confirmed that al-Megrahi is being treated with a drug called Abiraterone. This hormone-based treatment was only recently approved by the FDA in the US and still unavailable in the UK, despite the fact that it was actually developed there, at the Institute of Cancer Research in London. If and when it can be prescribed in the UK, it still may be too expensive for the NHS, costing as it does a cool £3000 (roughly $5000 at current exchange rates) a month.

Anyway, it’s likely that the Scottish doctors who determined that al-Megrahi was terminal didn’t even know this drug existed, and they couldn’t have used it if they did. All of which mitigates the criticisms: if al-Megrahi would have died in a matter of weeks had he stayed in the UK, then the whole humanitarian rationale takes on a particular piquancy. Mr. al-Megrahi’s release may literally have saved his life—extending his time on the planet for several years and quite possibly decreasing the pain of his affliction as well. Much as I’d like him to suffer, this is ultimately a good thing. He becomes a very visible reminder of the efficacy of Abiraterone, which will—consummation devoutly to be wished—both make that drug more readily available to less homicidal patients who need it, and spur continued research by Johnson & Johnson’s competitors (J&J currently markets the drug as Zytiga) to find an even better, more affordable, alternative. This is capitalism at its best.

Of course, there’s another positive by-product to this saga, less direct but no less relevant. My hope, forlorn though it may be, is that it may provide a teaching moment. The research that developed Abiraterone was real science: identification of a problem, background work, hypothesis, experimentation, analysis. Lather, rinse, repeat.

On one of the Facebook pages I read, there was a link today to an article about Jon Huntsman’s repudiation of Rick Perry’s anti-science (indeed anti-intellectual in general) faux populism. The page admin wondered if Huntsman is an “undercover liberal.” No, believing that science is something other than a visceral hunch possibly inspired by indigestion is not “liberal”; it is sane. Well over 90% of real climate scientists, for example, believe that climate change is not only real but at least significantly man-made. Over 90% of deniers are being funded by oil companies. Coincidence, that.

My point is this: even the most lunatic pseudo-Christian right-winger has got to understand that Abiraterone and hundreds of other drugs work because scientists discovered what helps and what doesn’t. There’s no question that al-Megrahi was in very bad shape, almost certainly dying, two years ago. If he were to drop dead tomorrow, he’d still have outlived his prognosis by 700%. Tea Partiers have two choices to account for his continued health (even if he did recently take a “turn for the worse”). Either science works, or the Christian God decided that a Muslim mass murderer whose victims were predominantly Christian would be a great choice for a miracle cure.

Now, if only there were a Tea Partier (or a Republican presidential candidate with any real shot of winning the nomination) who actually cared about facts or logic…

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