Just Blame Genes - or Disease

By , Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

NANCY REAGAN'S ``Just Say No to Drugs'' became quite a joke among sophisticates inside the Washington beltway. With scorn they asked how anyone could take seriously such a simplistic solution. No, they insist, to stop drug use there must be improved environments for prevention, and treatment programs.

Now some of these people are advancing the idea that what we are dealing with in drug addiction and criminal behavior really results from genes - from a compulsion the individual cannot resist.

How could anyone then ``say no'' to drugs or any action when there's a genes-impelled compulsion at work?

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Yet we've all seen recently millions of people addicted to smoking saying ``no.'' Smoking tobacco isn't using heroin. But its hold on individuals is tenacious. And it yields to the resistance of those who opt for freedom.

Until a few years ago I used to be about the only one of some 25 journalists at breakfast-press sessions who didn't ``light up.'' Now few reporters do.

``Saying no'' isn't the only answer to choices in life that are antisocial or self-damaging. But we are going in a dangerous direction when we assert there is no right or wrong when it comes to making choices, or that our actions are predisposed by genes.

Dr. Kenneth M. Grundfast, a physician who is chairman of the otolaryngology department at Washington's Children's Hospital, uses the genetic theory to absolve Richard Berendzen, who recently resigned the presidency of American University after being accused of making obscene phone calls, from responsibility for these acts. Dr. Grundfast, in the Washington Post, calls for Berendzen's retention:

``He did not jeopardize his career and his or the university's public esteem because he consciously wished or contrived to do so.... Apparently he has a mental or emotional disorder.... Whatever phone calls he might have made and whatever he might have said over the phone appear to be actions motivated from a compulsion. Recent research on obsessive-compulsive disorders is revealing that genetic factors and biochemical imbalances can predispose certain individuals to behave in abnormal ways.''

The ``genes'' theory is akin to the ``disease'' rationale for what many used to call ``doing wrong.'' Washington mayor Marion Barry is one who says, ``I can't help it - I'm sick.''

Recently Barry was talking to a group of young people after admitting to being an alcoholic and being charged with taking drugs. A young black called out: ``You were a respected mayor, right? Why did you risk it all just to do drugs?''

Barry responded by saying that the presumption of innocence applied to him. In a private talk later, the young man said Barry told him ``Alcohol and drugs was a disease ... he wasn't in control of it ... it could happen to anyone.''

Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer says of Barry's view: ``Rarely has this defense - possession by an alien entity called `disease' - been offered with such cynicism. By this logic, when a pedophile rapes a child, it is the disease raping. The rapist, like the child, is a victim.'' He adds:

``It takes little effort to relate just about any punishable misbehavior to one or another psychiatric syndrome.... Moreover, all behavior has physiological correlates. We are, for example, now discovering genetic correlates of violence - and yet a civilized society does not let a serial killer off the hook on the ground that he was dealt a bad hand genetically or was under a lot of stress at the office.''

The ``Just Say No'' of Nancy Reagan irritates many people for something beyond oversimplification: Its implication that there is responsibility for actions and that there is a right and a wrong way to live. Since I was a young man there has seemed to be a growing number of Americans who were bent on abolishing sin as a guide for their actions. They talked of the ``load of guilt'' that came from accepting the religious criterion.

The concept of sin - as a restraint for actions - has largely gone out the door for many Americans, particularly in this age of psychology.

Where is this taking us? Is this escape from guilt really a freedom from responsibility? Genes theories take us in that direction. But are we better off?

The young blacks killing each other in our big cities aren't hearing any talk of doing wrong from their leaders. Not as many young blacks go to church today. A black minister once told me that when young blacks attended church, instances of drug use and crime lessened. Simplistic? Perhaps. But worth thinking about.

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