Fame, Infamy, Impunity

Two news stories from The Los Angeles Times of October 4, 1995 tell us much about what we know and remember, what we never knew or what we forget, if we did ever vaguely know. The crimes are similar in that they are both tales of impunity, power, and privilege and money triumphing over victims and over the bureaucracies that were supposed to uphold the law.
The difference is that the news story that we all know is a crime with two victims and a celebrity defendant. (Los Angeles had 1,000 murders in 1992 and 297 in 2011, and many of these cases go unreported, or unsolved, or without convictions.) The other crime had thousands of victims over three decades, and it was perpetrated by doctors and government agencies that were bound to uphold such standards as the Nuremberg Code and the Hippocratic Oath

Two News Items from The Los Angeles Times, October 4, 1995
Front Page News
Back Page News
The ex-football star expresses gratitude and returns to his Brentwood estate where friends and family celebrate. Relatives of the victims react with pain and grim silence to the jurors' decision.
Clinton Apologizes for Radiation Tests, Experiments. Cabinet will study compensation for some victims and their families. About 4,000 secret studies through 1974 were disclosed.

Journalist Eileen Welsome won a Pulitzer Prize for her reporting of America’s radiation experiments, and wrote about it further in her 1999 book The Plutonium Files. Toward the end of her account she describes the long struggle to make the Department of Energy acknowledge the crimes of the past and move forward on questions of compensating victims and prosecuting the guilty parties. Hazel O’Leary had been appointed Energy Secretary, and she had been determined since her first days on the job to make the government account fully for its past deeds. But she met resistance at every step. Even the specially appointed advisory committee could not come to any firm conclusions about responsibility and compensation in its final report. It was only because of President Clinton that the government made an apology and offered compensation to a limited number of victims. He decided to bypass the equivocations of the committee and at least firmly state that the experiments had been inexcusable “not only by today’s standards but by the standards of the time in which they were conducted.”
Welsome wrote, “Clinton swept away all the conditions and spontaneously offered an apology to all of the people who had been used in the radiation experiments. The government leaders responsible for the experiments were no longer alive to apologize to the people and communities whose lives were ‘darkened by the shadow of the atom.’” (p. 470) Few of the victims received compensation, and the perpetrators went unpunished because they were deceased, aged, or impossible to convict for other reasons. Nonetheless, it was a remarkable acknowledgment that no other nuclear power has come close to disclosing about its own secrets, and it is a piece of history that should be remembered more often than the tale of the football star and the mismatched glove.


Eileen Welsome. The Plutonium Files. Dell Publishing. 1999.

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