Global Matters: When conscience comes too late

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There’s something about coming to the end of one’s days that focuses the attention.

When all pretense is stripped bare, when there’s no further need to posture, when approval, status, and earthly reward become meaningless, even the mighty – perhaps especially the mighty – look back upon their lives and repent their hubris, their words, their deeds and the certainty with which they staked their claims, excoriated their opponents, and implemented their policies.

Sometimes these recantations are moving and heart-wrenching; in other cases they’re too little, too late. The damage is done, the swath of ruin too wide to excuse and ignore.

In all cases, though, we’re left to wonder how different things might have been, if only … .

This past week, one of the more celebrated psychiatrists of our time, Dr. Robert L. Spitzer, issued a public apology. Now 80 and suffering from Parkinson’s disease, the man many consider the father of modern psychiatry wrote that he “owed an apology to the gay community” for a study he conducted decades ago that gave rise to so-called “reparative therapy” that could “cure” homosexuality. The study’s methods and conclusions were improper, Spitzer acknowledged, nor were his published findings peer-reviewed.

Yet such was Spitzer’s reputation and certainty that his conclusions were nonetheless accepted by many in the treatment community. Forceful, dogmatic and oh-so-sure of himself, Spitzer stared down his critics. Today he can barely hold his head up owing to the Parkinson’s, and he has chosen this time to apologize.

Sad to say, however, despite many red flags raised by his peers, before illness and his own sense of mortality overcame him, the study and its conclusions wreaked havoc on the lives of thousands of confused and troubled young people who were “suggested” into reparation therapies that promised a so-called cure.

Of course, Spitzer isn’t the first to have had an epiphany as he stared death in the face. The ruthless Republican political operative Lee Atwater, architect of the infamous Willie Horton campaign against Democratic presidential candidate and Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, also experienced pangs of conscience as he lay on his deathbed.

In the 1988 presidential campaign Atwater successfully painted Dukakis as soft on crime and simultaneously played the race card by showing grainy footage of African American inmates exiting a prison through a revolving gate, while an ominous voice intoned that Dukakis, through a prison furlough program, had allowed at least one murderer (Horton) back on the streets, where he soon killed again.

Nor was the Horton incident Atwater’s only scorched-earth success. In an earlier campaign he destroyed a candidate by referring to that candidate’s adolescent electroshock therapy, suggesting that the candidate had had “psychotic treatment” and had been “hooked up to jumper cables.” He was also credited with developing a race-driven Southern strategy to help GOP candidate Ronald Reagan win the presidency.

Then, suddenly stricken with a particularly virulent form of brain cancer, Atwater apparently found solace in religion and began apologizing publicly to the many whose careers and lives he had wrecked.

He died shortly thereafter, but too late for those whose reputations and careers lay in tatters and for the country whose course he changed.

And before Atwater there was Robert McNamara, secretary of defense to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. McNamara, the articulate and unflappable wunderkind who engineered the United States’ protracted and catastrophic war in Vietnam, took pride in his relentless effort to prevent a Communist takeover of South Vietnam, whatever the cost; 58,000 Americans, more than a million North Vietnamese and nearly 300,000 South Vietnamese soldiers died, with many more wounded in action – not to speak of the civilian casualties.

McNamara, later in life, was haunted by the utter futility of the war and his failure to understand that it could not be won. He was haunted, too, by his role in the second World War and in particular the firebombing of Tokyo, which claimed the lives of 100,000 Japanese civilians.

In the end, he, too, made public acts of contrition, accepting responsibility and acknowledging his guilt in the needless deaths of so many. His obituary in The New York Times noted that towards the end of his life, McNamara walked the streets of Washington, unkempt and in a kind of daze.

We humans are a peculiar species. Uniquely possessed of the concept of morality, we develop complex systems of ethics and then spend our lives subverting and circumventing them.

As the nation prepares to mark Memorial Day, this would not be a bad time to remember that policies are for today, but conscience is forever. As the poet and novelist D.H. Lawrence put it, “There is no complete forgetting, even in death.”

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Perry B. Newman is a South Portland resident and president of Atlantica Group, an international business consulting firm based in Portland, with clients in North America, Israel and Europe. He is also chairman of the Maine District Export Council.

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