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The APA, the Use of Torture, and the Sandy Hook Tragedy

The APA, the Use of Torture and the Sandy Hook Tragedy

By Dennis Loo (3/10/14)

On March 7, 2014 psychologists Roy Eidelson and Trudy Bond published an OpEd regarding the American Psychological Association’s decision to close an ethics case against a Guantanamo psychologist, thereby declining to take disciplinary action against him.

As Eidelson and Bond summarize:

Dr. [John] Leso was sent to Guantanamo within months of the arrival of the first detainees, where he led a new "Behavioral Science Consultation Team." Numerous detailed and authoritative documents - a US Senate report on detainee treatment, a leaked interrogation log, an Army investigative report, previously classified meeting memoranda and recent reports from The Constitution Project and the Institute on Medicine as a Profession - all clearly implicate him in designing and participating in abusive and torturous interrogations at Guantanamo, including that of Mohammed al Qahtani. Over a two-month period Mr. al Qahtani was subjected to almost daily 20-hour interrogations, strict isolation and sleep deprivation. He was frequently hooded, terrorized by military dogs, forced to stand naked with female interrogators present, forced to wear a woman's bra with a thong placed on his head, led around by a leash, forced to perform dog tricks and violated by other forms of abuse.  

The APA has at the heart of its ethical principles a “do-no-harm” dictum. To have the APA refuse to sanction Dr. Leso for this is scandalous. Eidelson and Bond state: “When psychologists betray this trust, they cause harm not only to their direct victims, but also to the profession as a whole. Just as importantly, when unethical acts are committed with impunity, they lend a veil of legitimacy to forms of mistreatment that diminish and jeopardize our society's fabric of decency.“

Note especially the last part of their words: “when unethical acts are committed with impunity, they lend a veil of legitimacy to forms of mistreatment that diminish and jeopardize our society's fabric of decency.“

In a related matter, the New Yorker’s online edition dated March 17, 2014 has an article about the Sandy Hook killings entitled “The Reckoning” by Andrew Soloman. For the article Soloman conducted a series of lengthy interviews with Adam Lanza’s father, Peter Lanza, who had until these interviews avoided the press. Lanza continues to struggle to cope with the fact that his son committed mass murder.

Peter hadn’t seen his son [he and his wife Nancy had separated] for two years at the time of the Sandy Hook killings, and, even with hindsight, he doesn’t think that the catastrophe could have been predicted. But he constantly thinks about what he could have done differently and wishes he had pushed harder to see Adam. “Any variation on what I did and how my relationship was had to be good, because no outcome could be worse,” he said. Another time, he said, “You can’t get any more evil,” and added, “How much do I beat up on myself about the fact that he’s my son? A lot.”

The thrust of the piece revolves around the question of what would drive Adam to shoot his mother four times in the face and then drive to his former school and kill twenty-six people, including twenty children. When Adam was thirteen, a psychiatrist diagnosed Adam with Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism. Nancy became a stay-at-home mom, home schooling Adam and trying to cope with Adam’s increasingly bizarre behaviors.

When Adam was fourteen they took him to see Dr. Peter King, a psychiatrist at Yale’s Youth Study Center:

King was concerned that Adam’s parents seemed to worry primarily about his schooling, and said that it was more urgent to address “how to accommodate Adam’s severe social disabilities in a way that would permit him to be around peers.” King saw “significant risk to Adam in creating, even with the best of intentions, a prosthetic environment which spares him having to encounter other students or to work to overcome his social difficulties.” And he concluded that Nancy was “almost becoming a prisoner in her own house.”

What were the warning signs that his son would turn violent?

Peter and Nancy sought professional support repeatedly, and none of the doctors they saw detected troubling violence in Adam’s disposition. According to the state’s attorney’s report, “Those mental health professionals who saw him did not see anything that would have predicted his future behavior.” Peter said, “Here we are near New York, one of the best locations for mental-health care, and nobody saw this.”

Spotting future mass murderers and preventing their future heinous acts is extremely difficult. Even when someone along the way spots disturbing signs, their concerns are generally not followed up with.

The article goes on to point out:

Both autism and psychopathy entail a lack of empathy. Psychologists, though, distinguish between the “cognitive empathy” deficits of autism (difficulty understanding what emotions are, trouble interpreting other people’s nonverbal signs) and the “emotional empathy” deficits of psychopathy (lack of concern about hurting other people, an inability to share their feelings). The subgroup of people with neither kind of empathy appears to be small, but such people may act out their malice in ways that can feel both guileless and brutal.

What is missing in Soloman’s otherwise fascinating piece, other than a brief mention of the fact that Nancy took Adam with her to the shooting range as a way of trying to engage him, is any discussion of why Nancy would introduce Adam to guns, given the fact that Adam lacked empathy. As I wrote in a December 16, 2012 article, “Fear and Loathing Unto Death: Extreme Individualism, Shredding the Social Fabric, and the Sandy Hook Massacre”:

Why is a parent who knows that her son is profoundly impaired socially, lacking in the most rudimentary skills of social interaction and empathy, who as a child had to be monitored constantly because he might do something harmful, teaching him how to use semi-automatic weapons?

Nancy never thought that Adam would turn violent. But if someone lacks empathy, then it necessarily follows that such a person has to be at extreme risk of using violence against others because they feel nothing for others.

Peter is convinced that Nancy had no idea how dangerous their son had become. “She never confided to her sister or best friend about being afraid of him. She slept with her bedroom door unlocked, and she kept guns in the house, which she would not have done if she were frightened.” About a week before the shootings, Nancy reportedly told an acquaintance, “I’m worried I’m losing him.” But losing him seemed to be a matter of his withdrawal, not of violence. The cautiousness with which Nancy responded to her son’s demands indicates anxiety rather than fear, and it must have made her as lonely as it did him.

Matricide is usually committed by overprotected boys—by a son who wishes, as one study puts it, “with his desperate act, to free himself from his state of dependency on her, a dependency that he believes has not allowed him to grow up.” Another study proposes that, in each case examined, “the mother-child relationship became unusually intense and conflict-laden, and “while the fathers” were uniformly passive and remained relatively uninvolved.” The state’s attorney’s report says that when Nancy asked Adam whether he would feel sad if anything happened to her, he replied, “No.” A Word document called “Selfish,” which was found on Adam’s computer, gives an explanation of why females are inherently selfish, written while one of them was accommodating him in every possible way.

Peter does not think that Adam had any affection for him, either, by that point. He said, “With hindsight, I know Adam would have killed me in a heartbeat, if he’d had the chance. I don’t question that for a minute. The reason he shot Nancy four times was one for each of us: one for Nancy; one for him; one for Ryan; one for me.”

Here is where the question of the fragility of the social fabric comes in. From my December 16, 2012 article:

Nancy Lanza appears to have embodied at least some of the attributes so highly touted by those who have the greatest fear of crime and who seek the comfort of very white, very rich communities, away from the big cities with all of their frightening heterogeneity, in big houses, on big lots, with lots of guns. The very things that she thought would protect her were her and her son’s undoing. Her stockpiling of weapons of protection and her enthusiastic training of her son Adam to use those weapons were not used against threatening strangers but instead turned on her and they made Adam’s psychotic break so very deadly, not just to her but to twenty-six others, including twenty children, in a school just two miles away, filled with the very people that Nancy Lanza regarded as her own. This is what makes Columbine and the Aurora Massacre resonate so much with the Sandy Hook Massacre.

Sandy Hook is but the latest and most dramatic example of chickens coming home to roost: what U.S. foreign policy has been with its horrid treatment of foreigners as aliens worthy of no respect and deserving of no due process has come home to haunt the homeland and even the most innocent and most putatively “American” of its people.

Social forces and individual biography intersect here. Adam Lanza is an individual case with its particularities, but so is the case of James Holmes, the Aurora Massacre murderer, and the case of Sgt. Robert Bales, who massacred Afghan villagers. If we seek to understand why these specific individuals committed atrocities and do not look at the social factors at work, then we will forever be wondering why we failed to see the individual pathology soon enough to prevent tragedies.

Individual pathology will always exist in the population to some degree. The main question for us is how strong the social fabric overall is because the attitudes that individuals such as Nancy Lanza reflect are microcosms of the macro forces and dominant ideas. If the dominant ideas and public policies are not governed by the rule of law then why should we expect individual citizens to feel bound to respect the boundaries of decent human behavior?

After murdering these innocents one by one, this U.S. soldier [Sgt. Robert Bales] - many Afghan witnesses, including one whose father was killed, saw several U.S. soldiers involved in the attack - then covered his/their victims with a blanket and set them afire.

“This incident is tragic and shocking, and does not represent the exceptional character of our military and the respect that the United States has for the people of Afghanistan,” Mr. Obama said in a statement.

Yet another example of the “exceptional character of our military” and its extraordinary “respect” for the Afghan people – one of a whole string of incidents that show the U.S. high regard for the people whose country it has been occupying for more than ten years in the longest war in U.S. history (not counting its wars on Native Americans).

The Marines who filmed their urinating on the corpses of dead Afghan fighters is another instance of the “exceptional character of our military” and its extraordinary “respect” for the Afghan people.

The Korans deliberately burned by the U.S. in Afghanistan is still another illustration of the “exceptional character of our military” and its extraordinary “respect” for the Afghan people.

The 2005 Haditha Massacre where at least two dozen unarmed Iraqi civilians were murdered by U.S. troops under the command of Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich who admitted that he had told his soldiers to “shoot first and ask questions later” is but more evidence of the “exceptional character of our military” and its extraordinary “respect” for the Iraqi and Afghan people.

In return for his “exceptional character” Wuterich was convicted of “dereliction of duty.”

The U.S. policy of bombing large gatherings in Afghanistan, including wedding parties, is still another example of the “exceptional character of our military” and its extraordinary “respect” for the Afghan people.

This is what liberation looks like, U.S. style.

To those who want to assert, as Mr. Obama and Mr. Panetta keep having to repeat, that these actions do not represent the attitudes and policies of their fine military machine, let’s note for the record and for accuracy’s sake that these wars were illegal, immoral, and unjust in the first place. These atrocities are merely the most publicized incidents of a policy; these are not aberrations. These are the results of the mentality and deliberate policies of this government, first under Bush and now under Obama.

As Cofer Black, Director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, replied to the Russian official who was warning him that the U.S. plans to invade and occupy Afghanistan were going to lead to the same disastrous results as what happened to the Russians:

“We’re going to kill them,” he said. “We’re going to put their heads on sticks. We’re going to rock their world.”

This is not some random, solitary bad apple speaking. This is the Director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center. This is a U. S. leader. This is their view of the Afghan people. This is an example of their mindset.

Aggressive war. Unjust and immoral occupation in which U.S. soldiers are routinely instructed by their superiors to “shoot first and ask questions later.” Free fire zones. Torture of innocents. Indefinite detention. Drone attacks. Breaking down Afghan civilians’ homes' doors in the dead of the night and then one by one, gunning down the families inside - men, women, and children - then covering their bodies with blankets and setting them afire.

These are not the actions of lone, mad, pathological individuals; this is U.S. policy. This is how empires behave and think.

Here is U.S. style liberation. Here is yet another fine example of the exceptional character of the U.S. military and U.S. government.

It is as if you take a line of rope and subject it to ever more intense pulling on either end. At some point the rope will unravel and give way. The point where it first unravels is a weaker segment, but the reason why the rope fails in the first place is not principally because of the weaker segment but because increasing tension is being placed upon the rope as a whole. The fact that no one in authority is asking these questions and instead focusing on the issue of mental illness is deeply disturbing and perilous.

From my December 31, 2012 article “Red Herrings and Deadly Consequences: Mass Domestic Murders and Mental Illness”:

As anyone who’s been paying any attention to the fallout from the recent upsurge in mass - and not so mass - killings, media and public figures have been highlighting and popularizing an alleged link of mental illness to these incidents. In today’s New York Times, for example, in the lead story about Erika Menendez, the woman arrested for pushing an Indian Hindu, Sunando Sen, to his death in front of a New York Subway train a few days ago, one has to read nearly to the end of the article before you see any mention of the fact that Menendez’s stated reason for her actions were that ever since 9/11 she’s despised Muslims and Hindus. The whole thrust of the Times story is by contrast how Ms. Menendez has a history of mental problems. Similarly, in the Newtown killings, Adam Lanza’s mental issues have been put front and center of media attention and in comments and discussions about the tragedy.

This whole line of discussion alleging that we need to clamp down on the mentally ill, however, is a deadly red herring. What should be the focus of the latest subway murder is the impact of the “war on terror” and the stoking of hatred and stereotyping of Muslims and those who the ignorant confuse with Muslims, such as Hindus and Sikhs, by the major authority figures in our society. It goes beyond stoking hatred, even, to the actual killings on a mass scale by our government in wars abroad, including assassinations ordered in secret session by President Obama.

People like Ms. Menendez are more unhinged than the rest of us, but are more likely because of this to act out on the stance that is being promoted society-wide by our society’s leaders and taking that stance to its logical end. That, and not mental illness, is the root cause. People like Menendez, Lanza, the Aurora Massacre killer James Holmes, and Afghan mass killer Sgt. Robert Bales can be roughly compared to the canaries they used to use in mines who were most sensitive to the odorless fumes that would kill you before you noticed. What is amiss in our society isn't mainly that there are too many guns that are too readily available (it's a secondary factor). And it isn't that there are mentally ill people or even that there are socially impaired people around who have too ready access to weapons. The problem is principally and overwhelmingly because sociopathy has become the official norm of our foreign and domestic policies. 

Instead of attacking this problem at its root, however, elites’ prevailing response has been to carry forward the ugly logic of the “war on terror” and compound the problem by stereotyping and repressing yet another relatively defenseless group of victims, the mentally ill, to join the ranks of Muslims, South Asians, Middle-Easterners, and so on. This is yet more evidence that this system and its leaders are utterly incapable of stopping this atrocious trend because they are in fact behind this trend and pushing it forward. 

These killings are going to continue unless and until an upsurge from below, supported and joined by voices from among the intelligentsia and other opinion-makers, rises up strongly enough to challenge the whole trajectory of events and the system that is giving rise to this. 


0 # anna82 2015-02-27 11:30
I can recommend African Mango, it helped me a lot.
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Elaine Brower 2

Elaine Brower of World Can't Wait speaking at the NYC Stop the War on Iran rally 2/4/12