It was a moment of drama that slipped into melodrama. On the Oslo stage, the world stage, one American doctor and one Soviet doctor, Bernard Lown and Evgeni Chazov, stood defending their new Nobel Peace Prize. In front of them, journalists were questioning the choice of an organization that had declined to take a stand on Soviet human rights.
Suddenly, freakishly, a Soviet cameraman slumped over in his chair, in cardiac arrest. In an instant, the two heads of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War were once again a pair of cardiologists. Laurel wreaths put aside, jackets off, the personal physician to the Kremlin and the American who invented the defribillator took turns with the impromptu team that got Lev Novikov's heart beating again. If such a scene had been written into a film, the director would have struck it out. The symbolism was too pat, too easy in its emotional pull. Indeed, a Russian expatriate at the press conference is said to have suggested that the heart attack itself was staged. But it was, rather, medicine as metaphor. East and West saving a human life. The "code" as they call such an emergency team effort, taking instant priority over politics.
Later, Dr. Lown read it as a kind of sign that justified the group's decision to focus solely on the largest public-health issue of all time: the threat of nuclear war. He said of the rescue, "It is the same with the threat of nuclear war. You treat it first and ask questions later."
The most fundamental of human rights is that of survival. Five years ago, the doctors' group was founded with that notion. If physicians could bridge differences of culture and language and nationality to find a cure for smallpox, then maybe they could use their special role to carve a path through, around, over, East-West politics and speak as physicians about the threat for which there's no cure. Today they have 135,000 members in 41 countries who consider themselves doctors first.
But it isn't always as simple as it sounds. In the brief daylight hours in Oslo, a 12-year-old letter had cast a moral shadow over Dr. Chazov. In 1973 Chazov had signed a letter denouncing another Nobel prize winner, the dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov. The letter was a reminder of the disequilibrium in any joint venture with the Soviets. The Soviet side of a "citizens' movement" is always quasi-official.
But the question is whether the shadow of politics will darken the doctors' efforts and taint the peace prize. Can we only "do business" with those whose histories are pristine? Can we work together for one goal, tiptoeing around fundamental differences in values, without becoming cynically compromised? What disagreements can we mute for what ends?
It isn't just politics that makes for strange bedfellows. It's just as easy for an "apolitical" idealist to believe that his cause is so compelling it diminishes all others. The habit of sacrificing a "lesser" moral issue for a larger one can be addictive and destructive.
But at the same time more than one union of idealists has been splintered by demands for purity, leaving the field to their enemies. Even the enemies of peace.
This time the Nobel committee did not find a flawless set of brows to crown. It rarely does. Alfred Nobel was an arms manufacturer. Few peace prizes are awarded without controversy. Even the selfless Mother Teresa was regarded by some as a nursemaiden to the status quo.
Those who would disqualify the international physicians on the basis of one cause and one letter should at least read another letter. In 1980, Sakharov wrote, "Despite all that has happened, I feel that the questions of war and peace and disarmament are so crucial they must be given absolute priority, even in the most difficult circumstances."
What these doctors have made is an imperfect alliance, but an alliance that's successful. They have found a singular, respected voice to describe and prescribe. It is harder, and messier, and much more ethically complex to try to save a world than to save a single patient. But it isn't just Lev Novakov who should be grateful they're on the case.