Is Guilt Obsolete?

by Lisa Martinovic´

Now that the various Abu Ghriab commissions have finished their unseemly tap dance around the assignation of blame, it’s time to explore some of the subtler, far-reaching implications of the “scandal.”

Before Abu Ghraib, before Fallujah, in fact just weeks before the whole shock and awe campaign was to launch, came news of a preemptive strike–on memory. The stealth attack was initiated by clever scientists who thought not of a cure for infectious greed, or a vaccine against the plague of moral relativism, but instead prepared to market a pill that will help us forget what we cannot bear to remember.

To the unimpeded brain, painful memories provoke responses as varied as solemn reflection, incapacitating fear, or self-imposed exile to the bleak landscape of guilt and regret–depending on our role in the precipitating event.

But with a very off-label use of the beta-blocker propranolol, doctors can stop the emotions associated with a traumatic event from embedding in the brain where they otherwise act like land mines; every time they’re triggered, an explosion of memories forces us to relive the grief we suffered … or inflicted.

Scientists seeking to spare the rape victim her trauma forgot that what’s good for the victim is good for the perp, forgot there might be a downside to sealing off access to a conscience–the very capacity that defines us as human and endows us with compassion and empathy. Imagine: our internal moral compass, painstakingly honed by evolutionary forces over millennia, circumvented by one little pill.

And wouldn’t this pharmacological end-run come in handy during the preemptive wars of the future? Handy for any soldier not sufficiently amputated from his emotions by military hardening and pre-battle infusions of sado-porn and methamphetamine; useful for those medics who cannot block the acrid stench of charbroiled flesh; and essential for the Special Forces operative who’s not far enough away from collateral or intentional damage to pretend that this strike was surgical and he a mere technician.

So if he’s close enough, and sober enough, his senses not dulled enough to keep him from taking in the enormity of his deed, he can instead take the warring-after pill and feel no pain, suffer no remorse, believe he was just doing his duty. He’ll go home PTSD-free, kiss his wife, and get on with his life. He may still father deformed children and die of cancer the VA insists is unrelated to depleted uranium, but by God he’ll die with no regrets at all.

But that was before shock and awe, before Fallujah, and before Abu Ghraib where American soldiers and their digital cameras proved that there was no big bonanza for the pharmaceutical companies because among the perpetrators there was no guilt that needed to be medicated, nor memories to be short-circuited.

To the contrary, the offending troops were so unconcerned with the legality and morality of their behavior that they chose to immortalize it, gleefully sharing those memories with friends and family. Pfc. Lynndie England apparently spoke for many when she testified to her belief that she had done nothing wrong. (It’s not like we were beheading anyone.) Likewise, for Rush Limbaugh and a startling number of Americans, the whole episode was on par with a fraternity prank, little more than light amusement for the troops. Troops who will someday discover that you can’t dehumanize your enemy without poisoning your soul.

And those further up the chain of command? Apparently, if all you did was order the torture, or look the other way, or sign a Presidential Directive authorizing it in the name of national security, well you’ve got no trauma to get over, do you?

And, perhaps, no soul to wound.

In the end, we are all being poisoned by a culture that breeds generals who boast our god is better than theirs; a nation where lawyers are paid good money to decide who is eligible for civil rights and who for torture; and a press corps that laughs along with a president who jokes about not finding the weapons of mass destruction he dreamed up to justify a war he can’t win.

In such a culture that little pill for guilt is obsolete.

Because we’re Americans.

We have no regrets.

We’re in a war on terror and our humanity is just so much collateral damage.


Note to Readers: The use of memory-blunting pharmaceuticals has not been much reported, though it deserves to be. Even the President’s Council on Bioethics has concerns. Check them out at:

The relevant section is several pages into the body of the report and well worth the read.


This essay first appeared at on September 16, 2004