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On Friday, President Clinton is set to apologize to 400 black men who were treated like human guinea pigs in a federal government experiment in syphilis treatment in Tuskegee, Alabama, 25 years ago.

That’s good. One of the things Clinton does best is grovel about other people’s mistakes. And if ever there were a group of people shafted by their government, the Tuskegee 400 and their families deserve recompense.

But let’s hold it right there, for a minute. Because, having said all that, there are a number of other lessons to be learned from this tragedy and the way it was handled — and continues to be handled.

First of all, who was at fault? The government, we say. And that’s certainly true. What happened to these men is just one more bit of evidence illustrating how inhumane even democratically elected governments can be. But government doesn’t make decisions — people do. What I want to know, and I imagine the Tuskegee 400 would, too, is who ordered treatment to be withheld from these men? I mean exactly who?

This experiment was not, as far as I can tell, authorized by the U.S. Congress, which means the American taxpayers are innocent of any culpability. Again, that’s not to say the victims shouldn’t be compensated. They should be. But who should do it? Those responsible for inflicting them with needless death and suffering. That’s who.

Those are the people who should be punished — who should be held accountable for their crimes against humanity, not the American taxpayer. Why should these Dr. Mengele types get away with nothing more than, perhaps, a guilty conscience? It doesn’t seem right. That’s not justice. It doesn’t make sense for society to pay for their crimes.

Are we really learning a lesson from this experiment by spreading around the blame? Or are we just passing the buck? Are we just making ourselves feel better — more compassionate? Whatever happened to the notion of justice — of crime and punishment?

I say let’s find those responsible for this hideous experiment and punish them — make them pay for reparations to the victims and their families. Why should I pay? Why should my children pay? They weren’t even born when this racist test was performed.

This idea that we’re all responsible is absurd. Only those who made a conscious decision to participate in the Tuskegee Study, or to fund it, should be held accountable.

Now, my heart goes out to these men and their families. I want very much to see them made as whole as possible. I’m sure many millions of Americans touched by this story agree with me. And I have no doubt that they would rally around this cause voluntarily if the government’s role was confined to bringing those responsible to justice.

The truth is, the government makes guinea pigs of all of us. I feel like one every April 15 when I am forced to pay the piper for a host of social experiments for which I don’t approve. Maybe the best thing the government could do to make up for its dreadful role in this and so many other atrocities

would be to get out of the guinea pig business altogether, to stop pretending that it knows what’s best for people — in other words, to stop playing God.

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