November 2015

The moral compass is broken

By Katharhynn Heidelberg

You might be hearing about morality a lot lately. We have “heart problems, not gun problems,” or so we’re told in the wake of America’s latest mass murder(s). Evildoers are doing to do evil. If we would just allow prayer in school ... If we would just focus on mental health… Etcetera. The nation’s moral compass is lost, goes the lament.

I agree.

Look no further than some people’s default reaction to mass murder committed with guns. This can be distilled to: “They’re coming for my guns!” Never mind that this isn’t true; that people have been wailing about this threat since at least the Clinton era. (And I know that’s true, because I used to believe Bill Clinton was after my guns.)

Never mind, too, that gun-rights supporters are correct that a gun ban will not stop the next shooting.

A person’s moral compass is broken when his or her first response to mass murder is to lament the prospect of losing a weapon like the one used to commit it. Nine human beings (and their killer) died in Oregon last month. Within days, two more campus shootings claimed lives. I remain a supporter of the Second Amendment, but maybe the first reaction ought to be lamenting the victims’ loss?

It isn’t just mass murder that exposes some dark, distressingly collective self-centeredness.

In both the Central American refugee and Syrian refugee crises, Americans have fallen down on the job. Children streaming across our southern border last year were labeled as “diseased” (dirty!), while adults were criminals just after our sweet welfare packages.

No one batted an eye when the media largely stopped paying attention to their plight; few people said anything at all when thousands disappeared into “detention centers.” Few appear to have considered: “There but for the grace of God go I.” That is, if they were trapped in a geopolitical nightmare and had the choice between fleeing or starving, which would they do? I doubt they would let respect of national borders deter them from saving their families’ lives.

Yet, we have resistance to welcoming Syrian refugees. The inept policies of East and West alike helped create a tangled mess in Syria, whose people bear the brunt of the result. You would think it would be a no-brainer to reach out to help men, women and children who risked their lives to get out of the hellscape the world helped create.

But many Syrians are Muslims, and we live in a country so viciously ignorant that one presidential candidate in effect declared Muslims less than equal to other people — and instead of condemnation, he won applause. (Talking to you, Ben Carson.)

Instead of helping our fellow man — as a “Christian nation” surely ought to do — many Americans balked at helping Syrian refugees. Because, see, “most of them” are single men, according unto Facebook the Infallible, and that means they are jihadists using the humanitarian crisis to slip into our borders! Either that or, per another infallible meme, because we have veterans in need, we’ve got no business helping others.

Close your eyes for a moment. Picture a stretch of sand, with the ocean lapping against it. But don’t relax — the water is washing against a 3-year-old, facedown in the sand. His name was Aylan Kurdi. He is dead, drowned while trying to reach Greece. Now consider how Congress has repeatedly voted against measures that would help veterans. Now place your outrage. Say aloud who is to blame for the plight of our vets.

If you can’t find the answer within you, now would be a great time to dig out that old moral compass. The simple fact is that we live in a country powerful enough to help both Syrian refugees (and to vet them for criminal behavior) and our own fighters. The meme declaring that we need to look to our own first is a false dichotomy that allows people to feel righteous about their selfishness and xenophobia.

Immorality takes many forms, including the type that smugly oozes through our lives, getting a pass because it is legal.

Exhibit A: Martin Shkreli, the smirking former hedge-fund manager who bought up the rights to the drug Daraprim, and promptly jacked up the price from about $13 a pill to $750, a 5,000 percent increase. Because he could. And because others do it, too. Shkreli is merely the most visible blemish on the buttock that is price-gouging.

According to published reports, Daraprim treats toxoplasmosis, which most commonly afflicts those with compromised immune systems. Toxoplasmosis can be fatal within a month, if not treated. Daraprim’s patent expired in 1953; only a small number of people, about 2,000, require it each year, making the market too small for other drug companies to pursue. Unless they were to charge $750 per pill, one supposes. Now Shkreli of Turing Pharmaceuticals controls the drug.

After the outcry (at least there was an outcry), Shkreli said he would lower the price. He provided few specifics and as of Oct. 10, apparently had not done so.

This sort of medical profiteering is immoral. It ought to also be illegal, but there are many milder (or less overt) versions of Martin Shkreli out there.

They will tell you the drugs are costly because they need both a profit and money for more research to cure more diseases. It is true that profits are necessary for businesses and that research costs money. It’s less clear, though, just how much of pharmaceutical profits actually go into the research and development of drugs that are needed, and how much of this explanation is just a cover for rip-roaring greed.

In a Tweet reported by the site Death and Taxes, Shkreli lambasted Sen. Bernie Sanders (to Sanders’ distress, no doubt), saying that Sanders should be “ashamed” for attacking the pharmaceutical industry “that creates jobs and leads the world in advances in medical research.”

Shkreli went on that Sanders “doesn’t understand health care” and should debate the topic with him, instead of taking cheap shots.

When it comes to not understanding health care, though, it appears Shkreli is an expert. According to The Observer’s Michael Sainato, Shkreli has no medical background. He is instead skilled in finance, and those skills are debatable.

Per the BBC, as quoted by Sainato, Shkreli’s hedge fund closed after Lehman Brothers sued it. He started another capital management firm, which launched him into founding biotech firms. One such firm later booted him and sued last year, alleging that he had opened the firm “to pay off investors from his old hedge fund.”

Martin Shkreli is a dreadful piece of human detritus belched up from the sewers that line the darkest places of consciousness.

He isn’t alone, though, and that is the problem: “His tactics to gain a profit are unethical, highlighting a pervasive trend among pharmaceutical companies to significantly increase drug prices to turn a profit in the United States,” Sainato’s piece — correctly — said.

The love of money is the root of all evil. Shkreli’s love of lucre appears to be such that he would let people die in order to make $750. It’s hard to put a gloss on that.

But pelting him with moral compasses won’t be productive. To begin with, he doesn’t care. Second, as noted already, he is a symptom of the disease, not its cause. We need to demand that Congress dust off its own moral compass and, as Sainato called for, enact legislation and regulations.

We talk of evil and moral decay when Americans die in shocking circumstances. But that evil and decay didn’t spring from nowhere. It wasn’t caused by video games, Hollywood, single-parent households, feminism, or even the weapon itself.

It came from human beings, and it’s visible in many circumstances, not just mass murder.

Katharhynn Heidelberg is an award-winning journalist in Montrose, Colo.