Posted by: Harold Knight | 08/17/2011

Charlie Starkweather, the Tea Party, and Henrietta Lacks: not an obvious connection, but it’s there.

Since September 19, 2009, I’ve posted here 289 times. The most often read post is November 10, 2009. The web doesn’t have much information about Charlie Starkweather, so my post about him has perhaps climbed up in the list of hits for a Google search.

That post isn’t really about Charlie Starkweather. It’s about Bruce Hoffmann, Professor of Terrorism or some such, at Georgetown University. Hoffmann sees a terrorist behind every blog, Tweet, and airline ticket in America—and in every Masjid. He is the epitome of the Terrorism Industry which has a stranglehold on our society, along with the big oil companies and big banks. And the health-care industry. [See the news item below the footnotes for an example of this stranglehold.]

It will be interesting to see how this stranglehold plays out in the run-up to the 10th anniversary of the horrific events of September 11, 2001. The neo-cons, the fundamentalist Christians looking for Armageddon, and even—yes, I’m afraid the hopeful are ignoring reality—Barak Obama have bought into the myth that we need heavy-handed freedom-abridging “security” measures to prevent even worse tragedies than happened in 2001.

This myth, of course, is one of the propellants for the Tea Party Movement. We need small government in every way except for the armed camp we have become. In 1961 President Dwight Eisenhower, as everyone knows, predicted the probability of this armed camp.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together (1).

“We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence.” “Corporations are people,” says Mitt Romney, one of the myriad Republicans running for President. We should, of course, not take his comment completely out of context. He went on to say that

We can raise taxes on — [AUDIENCE MEMBER: No, they’re not!] Of course they are. Everything corporations earn also goes to people. Where do you think it goes? [AUDIENCE MEMBER: It goes into their pockets!]. Whose pockets? Whose pockets? People’s pockets! Human beings, my friend (2).

His statement would not have been thinkable without the Scalia Court’s legislation from the bench declaring corporations to be people.  “We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-[corporation] complex.” The “military” part of Eisenhower’s duo is obvious, but the “industrial” complex is much broader than Eisenhower foresaw. Corporations that seem not to be related to the military also exercise “unwarranted influence,” not only in government, but in Americans’ lives.

Sloan-Kettering now

Sloan-Kettering now

In 1951, Dr. Chester Southam, a prominent cancer researcher at what became the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, caused—deliberately—the first cases of West Nile Virus in the United States. Remember West Nile? (3) Dr. Southam infected patients with the West Nile Virus—without informing them what he was doing. He injected the virus into cancer patients to discover whether or not their tumors shrank.  He was delighted to discover that in patients with lymphoma

. . .  tumors did shrink in 3 of 8 injected patients, compared with just a few responses in the 100 with other types of cancer. But five of the same eight lymphoma patients developed severe West Nile disease, including encephalitis –a rate far higher than in everyone else (4).

Dr. Southam’s experiment was notable for at least two reasons. It led to significant advances in understanding cancer treatment. However, he did it without the knowledge, understanding, or consent of the patients.

Dr. Southam next injected into the arms of about a dozen cancer patients human cells known as HeLa cells. HeLa cells are ubiquitous in the world of medical research. They are a line of human cells that miraculously live and multiply (almost virulently) in cultures. They are descended from tissue taken (without her knowledge or consent) from the tumor of Henrietta Lacks, a cervical cancer patient who was treated and died at the Johns Hopkins University Hospital in 1951. They were the first human cells ever to be cultured outside the body.

All patients into whose arms Dr. Southam injected HeLa cells (which are cancer cells) developed tumors. Southam was able to remove most of the tumors, but, of course, all of the subjects were already cancer patients, so, when they died, it was unclear what cancer had killed them (5).

So Southam’s next step was to round up 53 cancer-free volunteers at the Ohio State Penitentiary and inject them with HeLa cells. The cancer-free subjects’ bodies rejected the cells. A victory for cancer research. Well, not quite. Southam’s research went on to involve over 600 patients, some of whom developed cancer and some did not.

My point is—here’s the tenuous connection to Bruce Hoffmann, President Eisenhower, Justice Scalia, and Mitt Romney—all of this research was done without the consent of the subject (or knowledge of what Southam was up to). The line of cells (of which God-knows-how-many-trillions been produced) taken from Henrietta Lacks’ body without her knowledge has made countless billions of dollars for medical corporations—buying and selling them and using them for their lucrative R&D. Without doubt they have been essential in medical research (the Salk polio vaccine would not have been possible without them, for example). But. . . Rebecca Skloot has chronicled the epic of the cells and the devastation of the Lacks family since 1951.

“Corporations are people.” Other people—that is, research subjects—whose tissues have been removed from their bodies without their consent and used for research that has both helped medical science progress AND made billions of dollars for researchers and corporations have filed lawsuits claiming interest in the monies made with their body parts. In 1988 the California Supreme Court made what is still the definitive ruling on the topic. Skloot summarizes their decision saying

When tissues are removed from your body, with or without your consent, any claim you might have had to owning them vanishes. When you leave tissues in a doctor’s office or a lab, you abandon them as waste, and anyone can take your garbage and sell it(6).

Your body, your garbage

Your body, your garbage

“Corporations are people.” You, as a person, however, ultimately have no control over—over what?—your personhood? Your body? Your body is not yourself, at least not exclusively. As the military-industrial [corporate] complex tightens its grip on our freedoms, our rights are diminished. There is a terrorist behind every blog and tweet, and there is money to be made for someone else from your biopsy as well as from playing on your fear of the terrorists. President Eisenhower was not thinking of the big business of health-care, of course. But it’s all of a piece, the military-industrial-corporate complex. Terrorism and money. The perfect culture for the creation of the “potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power.”
(1) Eisenhower, President Dwight D.  Final TV Talk (January 17, 1961): Box 38, Speech Series, Papers of Dwight D. Eisenhower as President, 1953-61, Eisenhower Library; National Archives and Records Administration. 2001-2011. Web. 17 Aug 2011.
(2) Sargent, Greg. “Mitt Romney: `Corporations are people’.”  The Plum Line. The Washington Post. 08/11/2011. Web. 17 Aug 2011.
(3) “West Nile Virus: Questions and Answers.” Division of Vector-Borne Diseases: West Nile Virus. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention February 25, 2010. Web. 17 Aug 2011.
(4) Sepkowitz, Kent. “A virus’s debut in a doctor’s syringe.” New York Times 25 Aug. 2009: D5(L).
(5) All of the information about these experiments comes from: Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. New York: Broadway Paperbacks, 2011 (128 ff).
(6) Skloot 205.
An Example of The Stranglehold:

Earlier this year, the Muslim Legal Fund of America began supporting the defense of Sheikh Ibrahim Dremali, who is facing charges regarding an alleged omission on immigration forms submitted over 20 years ago.  He isn’t being charged with terrorism or anything related to terrorism, yet federal agents blocked off his neighborhood roads and stormed his home with guns drawn and treated the imam as if he were a dangerous, violent criminal.  

Sheikh Dremali is a respected and accomplished imam who is well-known for the videos of religious talks and sermons on the internet. His teachings about belief, character and counting God’s blessings are recorded, edited and uploaded by friends and viewed by people all over the world. People often translate them and repost them online to expand his reach, a true testament to the quality of his message. (From an email to the author from Muslim Legal Fund of America, August 17, 2011.)


  1. […] the story is more important to me for many reasons other than our childhood reaction to the presence of a real-life mass-murderer in our […]



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