Doctors are expected to be good people, most of the time. So it has come as a bit of a shock to most of us, following the alleged terrorist attacks in London and Glasgow, that some of the people getting paid to heal us might also want to finish us off.
To doctors themselves, though, this is less surprising. In the course of my own career, I've sat in the doctor's mess and browsed the newspapers in the company of overseas medics. Down in that bastion of all fresh and original debate, you often find yourself sitting next to a doctor who can bring a spot of first-hand knowledge to the latest foreign-affairs headlines. And what becomes obvious then, is that no matter how educated or indeed caring a person may be, he or she will not be guaranteed to share the views of the average Independent reader.
Within our own borders, I can remember encountering a house surgeon from Belfast, working back then in Edinburgh. The Troubles were still full-on and he loved to tell us how mad it all was, joining in with another friend with a list of awful anecdotes about bigotry in Belfast.
Six weeks later, he failed to turn up to work. He had been arrested for his part in a riot, chucking bricks at people who liked to attend the other type of church. From the moment he arrived, it seems, his Hippocratic oath was forgotten and his mindset had regressed to the ways of his youth.
European history offers us other, more disturbing material for debate. I can remember a period when the TV schedules seemed to be awash with programmes about the Holocaust. Schindler's List started to dominate the satellite schedules and many an off-duty medic would find himself slumped in front of the mess TV, watching the ghetto scene for the nth time. Given an audience of international medics, it was often disturbingly easy to find someone who would describe the Holocaust as an excusable mistake.
Halfway through a particularly harrowing sequence in The Pianist, one highly educated Polish guy began to explain how all the problems in modern Warsaw were being caused by the survivors of events depicted in this movie. Resisting the temptation to sound surprised, I egged him on a bit and eventually asked him how many Jews he'd ever met in Poland. "None," he told me without cracking a smile. "But let me tell you," he added, pointing abruptly towards the screen, "Jewish musicians are some of the very worst."
Which is more disturbing: this attitude, or the casual disinterest in Nazi war crimes shown by one Far Eastern doctor I met? "This is no big deal," he said, dismissively. "Anyone can pull a stunt like that!"
I recall one rather well-spoken house officer from India. His name was Raj. Now, I never went to boarding school myself, but I did have a bash at the Jennings books and whenever I looked at Raj, it was hard to imagine him as anything other than a friend of Jennings. He lived for cricket, brightly coloured blazers and career progression. But what made Raj stand out from the crowd was his conviction that India should declare war on Pakistan and destroy that country completely, using its considerable stockpile of atomic bombs.
The fact of the matter was, he explained, India had spent a lot of money on these damned things and there was nothing to be gained by letting them stand idle. If one bomb could take out a million people and there were 150 bombs in India, then as far as Raj was concerned, it was a bloody godsend that there were only a 150 million people in Pakistan. Raj was like that. He liked to think things through.
About a year after my encounter with Raj, I stumbled across a group of doctors who had all come over from Africa. Idle in the mess, they frowned as the BBC announced that a flurry of new British medical schools would soon be providing extra doctors to the NHS. The Africans were furious. Getting on his high horse, one of them started lecturing us about the terrible crime the British were about to commit in Africa. The NHS's recruitment of doctors from Africa was the only effective weapon Britain had to control Third World population growth and if we ever took it away, the consequences could be appalling. I was amazed to see his colleagues nodding in agreement all around him. They were paediatricians. I tried to get them to say more, but one of them started ranting on about a local boy who had fouled his son on the football pitch. "I expected better morals in this country!" he told me.
But in 2003, Africa was forgotten and every armchair strategist in the mess became obsessed with Iraq. Shortly before the fighting started, one Iraqi locum offered me this phrase: "Nobody in Iraq supports Saddam! Nobody!" By 2004, the tune had begun to change. One guy admitted: "Saddam wasn't that bad. If you didn't do anything to hurt Saddam, he left you alone."
At one stage a little group of Iraqi dermatologists became furious about every domestic appointment at the hospital. One day, a young Scottish SHO ran out of the mess to answer his bleep. With his colleague out of earshot, the Iraqi passed comment, "I know a guy in Baghdad twice as good as him. Why has he got a job?" I asked him about the patients he would be abandoning as he left for the West, but he just shrugged: "They're fucked, anyway." Trying to boil it down into one sentence and allowing for the high prevalence of educated Iraqis in the UK, one guy offered me this explanation for events in Baghdad. "The middle classes have fled en masse. The place is been run by the chavs and they've got the Koran instead of Man U posters above their beds."
Should we be surprised that doctors think like this? That they are, in fact, people with sometimes terrible personality flaws – just like the rest of us? Surfing the web, I find an article about a robot doctor in New York. Scooting around like R2D2, he reviews the wards with manic haste. Concerned patients and staff click on their symptoms as they arise and wait for his Hawking-esque response.
But it's only a trial. The medic you meet in casualty on Saturday night is likely to be human. Why did you ever think he would be otherwise?
T he writer is a London-based medical registrar. Dr Pete Curtis is a pen nameReuse content