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Dr Terrorist

by Yasmin Gunaratnam
30 Jul 2007 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: General Issue [0] | Commons

The failed terrorist attacks in London and Glasgow in late June were strange and shocking. They were so spectacularly inept and bodged that one has to question both whether they were intended to cause apocalyptic loss of life and their connections to an international al-Queda ‘plot’. Most shocking however, were the rapid revelations in news coverage that the key suspects were thought to be doctors who had worked for the UK’s National Health Service (NHS). Within days of the attacks, the British government had called for greater surveillance and regulation of all overseas professionals working in the NHS. A response that played to the renewed moral panic about immigration controls that accompanied the vilification of the doctors in the tabloid media. In the blogosphere, the responses ranged from ‘I told you so’, to ideological critiques of socialised health care, to the stark and fundamental question ‘…does this now make you think twice before you go to the doctors?’

In trying to understand what has been so shocking about the failed attacks three significant issues come to mind. First, conflated in the unsettling ‘doctor-terrorist’ couplet is the potent intermeshing of different sites and modalities of power: medical and political, intimate and social. Second, a part of the shock-factor was that doctors are generally thought of as being highly intelligent and moral, bound by an allegiance to Hippocratic values. Although terrorists are represented as ‘crafty’, it has been relatively easy for the media to portray them as pathological, intellectually weak and immature individuals who have somehow been led astray. The doctor-terrorists have defied and troubled these simplistic categorisations. Third, the moral repugnance provoked by the doctors seems to stem from acute feelings, usually repressed, of our vulnerability and relationality.

Let me unpack some of this. Doctors are trusted and respected, but the reality is that they frequently cross the line. Harold Shipman is a recent and dramatic example. The doctor and poet William Carlos Williams is one of many doctors who has written about the extents of the harm and self-harm amongst the medical profession. Williams’s poems and short stories are full of the pleasures and wonder, but also the everyday disappointment, frustrations, exhaustion and rage of being a doctor. He has written about mistakes, butchery and alcoholism, what Robert Cole[1] , another doctor, has referred to in terms of the ‘unrestrained demonic constantly at work’ in doctors’ lives.

Doctors have also always played prominent roles in extremist activities and violence such as the holocaust and the genocide in the Balkans in the 1990s. Ayman Al-Zawahiri, second-in-command of al-Queda, is a doctor. The widespread outrage and disbelief about the role of doctors in the recent attacks no doubt springs from the potential blurring of quite different forms of violation. But surely what has been especially disturbing – in the same way as the 9/11 attacks – has been the increasing intimacy of terrorism within the boundaries of the West/North?

As the daughter of an overseas trained doctor who worked and died in the NHS, and as someone who has been involved in research on racialization in hospitals and hospices for over a decade, I am biased. It has been difficult, if not impossible, for me to think about the June attacks without also thinking about the nature of our mutual corporeal vulnerabilities and the ways in which such acts of violence collide with and touch our bodies in ways that open up the global flows and transfusions that are so integral to health and well-being in the West/North.

Such global relations suffuse our most basic medical knowledge and contemporary care-giving. Eurocentrism in accounts of bio-medicine has repeatedly negated allopathic medicine’s indebtedness to medieval Islamic medicine over the centuries. Some have claimed that the very institution of the hospital as we know it originates in Islamic medicine.

Today in the UK, the NHS is the largest employer of those racialized as being ‘minority ethnic’ in Europe. Some quarter to a third of all doctors working in the NHS have qualified overseas, resulting in what has been termed a ‘perverse subsidy’[2] provided by countries with a great need for health care professionals to a nation which is already relatively well-provided for. At the same time, minoritized doctors in the NHS are concentrated in low status specialities, in less prestigious institutions, and they are far less likely than their white counterparts to get consultant posts or other senior positions within the NHS.

Along with other minoritized health care workers, doctors face racism and violence from those they care for on a daily basis. Even when tending to dying people, I have heard countless stories over the years from professionals, both black and white, of the fear and anger and refusals of care that minoritized staff encounter at the death-bed. What a way to go.

There is a further, less obvious, but inter-related context that is relevant here and it concerns the contorted relationships between racialization at a structural level within the health service and corporeal relations in the tight, micro-interactions of care. It is highly likely that whenever we have needed care (or will need it in the future), it will be provided in some part by minoritized workers. Such workers may have delivered our children, tended our bodily fluids and boundaries, cared for our parents and witnessed our bare emotional distress. In this regard racialized difference and global inequalities are already under our skin, a part of the very bodies and lives we have become, rather than something we can isolate and expel. That terrorist-doctors provoke such intense shock, anger and visceral feelings of betrayal is not surprising.

None of this is intended to excuse or even fully explain the doctor-as-terrorist. We need more dialogue. As Judith Butler[3] has pointed out, a significant response to contemporary terrorism has been the interdiction against public discussion and examination of such violence. To discuss and to think critically about terrorism and the conditions surrounding it has been seen to exonerate, romanticise or to be complicit.

The doctor-terrorists have caused well-worn narratives on terrorism to stutter. This interruption feels like an opportunity to expand our responses to terrorism and to the ways in which we are continually sustained and undone by our fleshy vulnerability and interdependence. Indeed, maybe we all need to think twice before we go to the doctors.


1. Cole, R. (1984) William Carlos Williams: The Doctor Stories. London: Faber and Faber. [↑]

2. Mackintosh, M. Raghuram, P. and Henry, L. (2006) A Perverse Subsidy: African Trained Nurses and Doctors in the NHS. Soundings, 34: 103 -13. [↑]

3. Butler, J. (2004) Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. London: Verso [↑]

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Yasmin Gunaratnam is a Senior Lecturer in the Sociology Department at Goldsmiths College (London University). She is interested in bodies and care; social research methods & narratives and stories.
All posts by: Yasmin Gunaratnam | Email | Website

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