Wednesday, May 20, 2009



In the ongoing unraveling of the American Psychological Association’s white-washing of psychologists working for the military in torture projects, yet another effort to spin and cover tracks has backfired on the military and the ‘professionals’ involved.

One Captain Bryce Lefever of the Navy, interviewed on NPR, let a little too much out of the bag., and not only about the program, but about himself. It’s not pretty, but it’s informative.

It gives Us an idea of the psychology of officials who get into baaad things yet make it seem like a good thing.

“There’s something to be said for sending the message that the gloves are coming off”, says Captain Dr. Lefevre (I’m assuming he’s got a Ph.D, but maybe that’s being too generous). So you’re going to do it to ‘send a message’. Johnson kept trying to send such messages to the North during Vietnam, and Joe Biden figured it was worth passing a bad law if it sent a “great message” back in 1994 (Is he an attorney? Or is that being too generous?)

“You don’t take a knife to a gunfight”. Lovely. Quoting a criminal’s cute line from a mobster movie (the Elliot Ness remake with the guy from ‘Silverado’). If serious thought won’t float the boat, posture with a quickie from some flik.

Nor, you say, is American abuse to be compared with Soviet abuse: they, after all, were trying to conceal truth while Americans are doing it “for a righteous purpose – to reveal the truth”. Hmmm. Except for the truth about what they actually are doing. That’s a little convoluted.

You're mad because when important psychology types stated publicly that they disagreed with the positions you had stated in the interview, they didn’t first contact you “seeking to understand”. If you give an interview, one assumes that you’re trying to make yourself understood; if then others don’t agree with you, and say so, then in what way have they spoken without “seeking to understand”?

You go after NPR for ‘twisting’ and ‘manipulating’ “so egregiously”. You had been “aware of NPR’s reputation” but “had no particular reason to suspect” that it would happen to you. So you're no dope, because you ‘knew’ that NPR (and perhaps any media interview folk) do indeed tend, if the conditions are right, to do some creative editing; you can’t be fired for being too stupid. But at the same time you're a victim, because – and I lose you here – you didn’t see where that might happen to your interview … the one about the national hot-button issue of ‘torture’.

You object to the title “Military Psychologist Says Harsh Tactics Justified”, although what else could it mean that “the gloves were coming off” and that the Navy wasn’t takin’ no knife to a gunfight?

There are “similarities between what was called torture in one context and therapy in another”. I imagine I thought something similar in wondering whether arithmetic homework was torture or education, but I can’t see where ‘harsh tactics’ or ‘torture’ can resemble ‘therapy’, unless we’re thinking of ‘boot camp’ tactics and ‘tough love’ and maybe Esalen in the baaad old days.

And anyway, even if you’re doing an Esalen type of tough love on a detainee whom you think is ‘addicted’ to terrorism, you’re not trying to cure him – you’re trying to pump him for information. Pump, drill, and otherwise extract information from him. You are not there to provide therapy and you don’t see him as your patient; you see yourself as being an agent of the government. Your professional Oath and your military Oath diverge in the darkling wood.

Nor is the ‘truth’ that you’re claiming is the high-ground purpose that justifies your actions actually a ‘truth’ about the patient that will help him improve his life. You are going after ‘information’, not ‘truth’, and certainly not Truth.

So then you say that “empiricists, ethicist, behavioral researchers, academicians and philosophers need to debate and decide what constituted torture and the effect of context on the topography of behavior”. Sooooo, whatever professional education and training you’ve had hasn’t given you any insight into any of that? You’ve got a Ph.D. (or at least a Master’s degree) and you can’t come to any solid assessment about what constitutes torture? Federal and international law don’t help? It’s not your department – you’re just the little guy at the end of the hose or rope or barrel … is that it? I don’t think Mengele would have made that cheesy defense – he was too convinced of his ‘superiority’; but I think a lot of his underlings would have tried it. Ach. Don’t blame the teeth, blame the brain that told them to bite – that sort of thing?

Yet then you immediately go on to say that “It is important that those of us who can contribute to the war of ideas and philosophies do so, and that the right, reasonable, prudent and ethical side win.” So you are among the “us” who are making such a contribution? And yet you seem to also claim that you don’t know enough to be making any major philosophical, ethical, or behavioral decisions. So what are you doing then? What are you contributing, exactly? On what grounds? Or are you presuming that since you are on the side that has declared itself to be “right, reasonable, prudent and ethical” then whatever you do – no matter what it is – must be “right, reasonable, prudent and ethical”? Is it too quaint to recall here that ‘handsome is as handsome does’?

And clearly, you see yourself as some sort of ‘soldier’ in a “war”. That’s not an impressive primary attitude to have when you’re conducting ‘therapy’. Even if you see yourself as a ‘soldier’ in some ‘war’ against mental illness or delusion, you can’t really envision your patient as ‘the enemy’.

But you seem to feel that you’ve got a sufficient grasp of History to then assert that “the pacifist movement before WWII and the appeasers in England, France and other countries had catastrophic consequences on the events that set the stage for the invasion of Europe by Germany, Nazism, and the Third Reich”. Maybe there was a class in ‘Historical Psychology’ where you got your professional education. Or ‘Psychology in History’?

If so, though, bringing up Nazism and the Third Reich should prompt more immediately relevant reflections than a few clichés about diplomatic history. I mean, a lot of very intelligent and competent folks were in the SS and the assorted German medical corps, especially officers and those trained in the ‘helping professions’, and they – convinced that they were ‘right’ – did some mighty nasty things.

And then – Dr. Freud to Examining One stat! – you proclaim that you are “resoundly [sic] opposed to pacifism as I believe it is a moralistic-feel good about oneself – philosophy [sic]”. Had it occurred to you that your assorted tactics for justifying what you’ve done is pretty much an effort to feel good about yourself?

You claim that you pointed out that “I was waterboarded in 1990” and that it was “terrifying”. You were not, you claim, however, “harmed by the experience”. Either you don’t quite grasp the depth and consequences of a human being being “terrified” or you are making an incoherent statement. To be “terrified” results in a cascade of neuro-chemical and physiological effects that cannot but have an awful consequence. Haven’t all the ‘rape stories’ of the past few decades made any professional impression on you? A genuine rape is an awful thing to undergo, and waterboarding carries the added and profound physiological sensation of imminent and certain death.

Nor is any ‘controlled’ waterboarding, done in a ‘school’ environment by ‘friendlies’ who are on your side, in any way sufficient to produce the sense that results from being waterboarded by ‘hostiles’. And surely, you don’t mean to imply that the waterboard-ees saw you as ‘friendly’ and were under the consoling impression that the whole thing was merely being provided at no charge as a learning experience.

But then you philosophise straightaway: “there is no life free of pain or adversity”. Nicely Stoic, and have you read deeply in Marcus Aurelius? Zeno of Citium? Seneca? Epictetus?

But if this is the advice you might proffer to your ‘patient’ or whatever you would call the dripping detainee, then you cast yourself as the bringer of pain and adversity into his life. Which brings it all back to whether you as a professional are ‘doing harm’. Or do you wish to now assert that whether ‘inflicting pain’ is a form of ‘harm’ is a question properly to be considered by some other type of professional, like a philosopher or an academician or an ethics-guy?

But, in best self-help fashion (perhaps a stint on 'Oprah' is not out of the question) you confide that the “Waterboard made me stronger, more able to face the various problems of my life”. Where is Dr. Freud? – page him again, please. Clearly there are a number of problems you haven’t really faced, from what your letter indicates here. But, yes, it seems safe to agree that you do indeed now have “various problems” in your life.

But now, you turn – under pressure – on psychologists who disagree with you. (This is where things get positively Nazi, circa Fall of 1945.) Your “colleagues at APA [sic] have passed a resolution that has the breathtaking arrogance of [sic] suggesting how my military colleagues should and should not practice in settings that they have decided are or have been abusive to our Detainees”. The final “they”, I presume, seeks to refer to the non-military and arrogant colleagues. Had you had any English classes in undergraduate? Grammar or High School? I take it there was no written exam for Captain.

Then you let’em have it: “I am sure that there have been psychologist consultants to business and industry …” Zing! And I have to agree with you. Psychologists have been making a nice living all along, showing American corporations and advertisers how best to influence, inveigle, or manipulate the minds and hearts of American “consumers”. If memory serves, I seem to recall reading a few decades ago that ‘business’ was the largest employer of psychologists in the country.

So in a way you are right to feel – ummmm – singled out.

In fact, in my immediately preceding Post, “Jagged Schemes”, I discuss how a much more adroitly manipulative corps of professionals, the JAGs and military lawyers, have been carefully extricating themselves from the immediate vicinity of ‘torture’. And thus the members of their parent professional association, the ABA, have not had to profess themselves ‘shocked, shocked’ that taking the King’s Shilling might actually require doing the King’s dirty work.

So you are right, to some extent, to feel yourself singled out. But you are fortunate that the Military Commissions Act of 2006 will probably prevent you from winding up ‘downrange’ of that tastefully appointed meat-grinder that your fellow (and sister, of course) professionals run under the general rubric of ‘military justice’. That was part of their shrewdness: in making sure that they saved themselves they also sweetened the pot for all of their brother and sister professionals who, for the Shilling, had also walked on the dark side, however much they might tell themselves differently when they look in the mirror every morning.

But I think that you are now launched on becoming a symbol of what has gone wrong with the country and the government and the helping-professions of late. You got in on Empire early, perhaps too early, since much of the country still hews to at least the ideals of the Republic (quaint, alas, as they may now seem).

The good news is that most of the Beltway is also ‘cutting edge’, operating on the principles of Empire. The bad news is that you might be –for all your cuff-stripes and education – not so big a fish that they’ll be willing to save you from the pain and adversity that is now parachuting into your life.

Read as much of Zeno and Epictetus as you can. And be thankful that while you may now understand Marcus Aurelius on a whole new level, you probably won’t have to develop an intimate acquaintance with Boethius.

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