Short Story: “Suppression”

Harboring truth is often easier than speaking it.

Suppression
by P. Orin Zack
(9/10/2007)

FDA Chemist Priscilla Naklin idly studied the hi-res image on her screen, a plant with a cluster of five small, white flowers, each one tinged on the inside with a delicate purple. “What did you do,” she asked it, “to deserve all this attention?”

Soon after it had been discovered on a tract of climate-stressed far northern First Nations territory, cloisterwort was pressed into service for the calming scent it added to a traditional remedy for the common cold. The intent may have been simply to make the preparation less offensive to sensitive young noses, but the effect of adding it was dramatic. It didn’t take long for word to spread, first throughout First Nations circles, and then to herbal remedy manufacturers eager for a new miracle cure.

Even before the new products hit store shelves, the popular press was all over the story. Pent-up demand was prepped with discount coupons, and natural remedy outlets fed the frenzy of interest with anything they could find about the new plant and where it grew. Even the seed companies were getting requests.

Smelling money in the air, Big Pharma then sent its lobbyists to the FDA, in hopes of forestalling the loss of a major revenue stream to a product that didn’t come from its labs. Specifically, they wanted it declared to be a medical product, because it actually worked, and therefore not available for sale except through their channels.

That, of course, meant convincing Congress, and Cil had been tasked with crafting the whitewash the committee would be handed at the upcoming FDA hearing. She wasn’t pleased. “It’s just not right,” she lamented.

“You talking to yourself again, Cil?”

She closed her eyes and inhaled. “Mmmm. Mocha.” She looked up at the 40-something woman standing beside her. “Hi, Gwen. Is that for me?”

“You don’t think I’d drink one of these, do you?” She set the cup down and brought her other hand closer. “Now this, this is more my style. Real Kona.”

While Gwen pulled up a chair, Cil opened her cup and stirred in the whipped cream.

“Have you decided what to do with that report yet?”

She glanced at the flower. “No. When I talked to the FDA rep back in college, I thought their job was to protect the people. Boy, was I wrong.”

“You’re not the only one in that pickle right now. Have you been following Congress’ problems getting the White House to acknowledge their subpoenas?”

Cil shook her head. “Only vaguely. I’ve been eating myself up over this report for weeks, now.”

“It’s turned into a battle over Executive Privilege. When their requests for testimony were rebuffed, the committee issued subpoenas, and they’ve been ignored as well.”

“That’s kind of the end of the road, isn’t it? What else can they do?”

Gwen took a long sip, and savored the flavor for a moment. “See what I mean? They’re stuck in the same kind of pickle you’re in. They really want to do the right thing, but they’re stymied. Fortunately for them, there’s a way out.”

“Oh?”

“Yes. It’s a devilish one, too, and it starts with a Contempt of Congress citation.”

Cil grinned. “They can do that?”

“They can do more. If they still don’t get satisfaction, Congress can send the Sergeant at Arms to arrest both of them, and bring them before the committee.”

“What I wouldn’t give to be able to see that.”

Gwen laughed. “Who knew the congressional doorman has the authority to do that? But it’s there. It’s in the code. If they still refuse to talk, they’d be tried for civil contempt.”

“Even better.”

“And if they’re found guilty, the Sergeant at Arms can lock them up until they agree to testify, or until the session’s over.”

“That’s great for them,” Cil said, fingering her cup nervously, “but I don’t see how it helps me. It’s not like I can change our boss’ mind on this.”

Gwen leaned closer. “Maybe you don’t have to.”

“You have an idea?”

“Think about it like this. You’ve been asked to prepare the case against cloisterwort. And you can do that. But words sometimes say one thing, but mean another.”

“What are you suggesting?”

“Only that you not do a very convincing job of it.”

* * *

Cil turned around to see who had shouted in support of her action. A dark-haired man in a bomber jacket nodded his approval.

“I’ll have quiet in this hearing room,” the committee chair said sternly into his mike, “or all of the visitors will be asked to leave.”

She folded her hands on the witness table and scanned the row of senators arrayed about her.

“Young woman, I do not take kindly to witnesses refusing to answer questions. Are you availing yourself of your fifth amendment right to not incriminate yourself?”

“No, sir.”

“Then why have you refused to answer my question?”

She glanced at the gold-fringed flag hanging by the door. Gwen had told her that it was an Admiralty flag, which meant the proceedings were being carried out under military law, where you were assumed to be guilty until proven innocent. “I did so because I have not yet been sworn in. Was it your intention that I answer your questions truthfully?”

“Of course it is. Why would you even ask a question like that?”

“Because there’s nothing about this proceeding which compels me to do so. If that flag is here intentionally, then this isn’t a civil body, and any statement made must be assumed to be a lie unless it’s proven to be otherwise. That’s the sense I get from watching far more important hearings than this one on C-SPAN. And since you haven’t seen fit to swear me in, I conclude that you’ve asked me here to lie to the committee.”

A shocked silence filled the room, and then was overwhelmed by a sudden flurry of whispers and throat clearings. The chairman covered his mike and conferred briefly with the member to his right. It took him a while to remove his hand. “It sounds to me like you feel you have something important to say to us. You can be confident that we, that all of us here would like you to answer truthfully. So, would you please answer my original question? What is the FDA’s position on whether this cloisterwort should be classed as a drug, and therefore not be available through naturopaths?”

“Unless you swear me in, sir, I cannot answer your question.”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake. All right, if you insist.”

Just then, a page entered the room and hurried over to speak with the chairman. After sending him on his way, the chair leaned over the mike and smiled broadly. “Please excuse the interruption. I have just been informed that the Sergeant at Arms has been dispatched to the White House. The chamber’s time limit for a response to its contempt citation has expired, so now both the President and Vice President will be arrested and brought to the Senate for questioning. This is unprecedented. In light of these developments, I would like to suspend this hearing and reschedule it at a later date.”

Cil tapped her own mike several times. “Mr. Chairman?”

“Yes, Ms. Naklin?”

“Swear me in. I’ll be brief.”

He grudgingly agreed, and then asked once again for her answer.

“Sir, your question cannot be answered as stated. Yes, cloisterwort should be classed as a drug, because that is the designation of agents which have been proven to be effective against disease. But no, its availability should not be restricted, as the pharmaceutical lobby has demanded. As you’ve just announced, sometimes normal channels do not suffice. I believe this is the case for cloisterwort as well.”

He considered her answer for a long moment before replying, “Thank you. I can see that we will have an interesting discussion when this meeting resumes. We’re adjourned.”

THE END
Copyright 2007 by P. Orin Zack

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