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Carol Smaldino

Carol Smaldino

Posted: August 18, 2009 12:16 PM

Interrupting Unfriendly Persuasion


The following blog is a response to the New York Times front page story, "2 U.S. Architects of Harsh Tactics in 9/11's Wake," by Scott Shane published this past Wednesday, August 12. It also provides support for the American Psychology Association's recent adoption of a zero-tolerance policy on torture.

A part of any psychology involves the use of persuasion. Using a variety of methods, we persuade our children to behave a certain way, to go to sleep on time and to eat good food. Even those of us who believe in using our empathy and knowledge of developmental needs cultivate our own boundaries and model them, persuading our children through some kind of teaching or modeling.

However, when persuasion is used without regard for the other person, when it becomes sadistic and reckless endangerment, it is what we have come to know as torture. When psychologists assist in "enabling" interrogation and coaching military personnel in the cruelest of methods of coercion, they and the public have also been persuaded that torturing brings actual information (proven false) and that all ends are worth whatever the means.

In the struggle to clarify the role of psychologists in the "enhanced interrogations" during the George W. Bush administration, there has been the argument that psychologists were part of the anxiety about terrorism that pervaded America since 9/11. They were doing their job, and some have continually tried to make the case for the presence of psychologists making interrogations less harsh and more based on manipulation through the soft touch. We know that many psychologists have taken part in the harsher kind of interrogations, and those who didn't know this can look at the New York Times' August 12, 2009 front page story, "2 U.S. Architects of Harsh Tactics in 9/11's Wake" by Scott Shane.

On the matter of torture or "enhanced interrogation," we stand in judgment, for the most part, based on the values that we have already been persuaded and convinced. Our perceptions slant to one vision and often ignore the other sides or stories. We are blinded by our prejudices and often fail to hear other people talk. And in all of this we are still afraid to publicize the stories from the point of view of some of our own troops -- young men and women persuaded that the violence and pleasures of torture is a secret that cannot be shared with anyone. We have been given testimony by some victims of torture, but it seems there has been little outlet for those who have committed these acts. To date, there has even been little to no psychological examination of the states of mind of the "interrogators," in light of legal implications of any direct testimony.

I admit that I would like to have the power to persuade the many readers who won't enter more progressive websites that I feel offer the fullest information and coverage of the torture issue. I know it would take time and empathy even for the rest of us to wonder at the depth of the passions and fears of conservatives without simply judging them with too much ease. I know hate leads to hate and that it becomes seductive and pressing.

I remember hating the American soldiers in Vietnam who killed babies, and I now see myself as having been arrogant and cold and shallow. I don't want to hate the American soldiers who have tortured, though it is easy to hate those who persuaded them to do so, and even more to hate those who are making profit in cold chalets of luxury made of the blood and guts of us all.

I want to stay curious about the culture of persuasion that took these soldiers and made them feel torture was the only way. If we don't maintain this interest and act on it, we will have little to offer to the present and future generations of soldiers. If we don't have an interest in learning the culture that germinates these kinds of seeds, we will be failing all of our people. We will be stuck in the fog of war, limiting our action to only judging and punishing.

In the cautionary and apt documentary The Fog of War," former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara described in depth the dangers of committing errors in judgment when a country is on a solo mission without the broad support of allies to balance and aid critical thinking. He exposed our susceptibility.

We failed to heed his cautions.

Yet, I recognized that it is so hard to practice what we/I preach. It is hard to say and mean it -- as I will try -- that I will get to the core of my own hate, shame, fear, tendency to hide in rationalization.

One way of looking at psychology is as a road to potential awareness and as a way of looking for emotional reactions that can sustain us and be sustainable. In a beautifully written and painfully read novel The Vagrants, by Yiyun Li about China's Cultural Revolution, one of the main characters is a saddened old man who writes in a love letter, "We become prisoners of our own beliefs, with no one free to escape such a fate, and this, my dearest friend, is the only democracy offered up by the world".

I would like to think we have a choice, and that at least those of us willing to examine our actions might stop in our tracks and examine a policy or those assumptions which the fog of war (or the fog of torture) make unclear. We need to make a practice of examining the stories told to us and told by us to each other until those stories are repeated enough to be believed.

Stories, true stories of feelings and perspectives, have a way of breaking down barriers between people. I know many Vietnam veterans were traumatized not only by battle scars but by the fact that nobody wanted to listen, to be witness to the tragedies of their wounds and of their commission of atrocities, of their having been lost in unstoppable fear and rage.

Again, I think we have a choice here. And as someone who can be both submissive and oppositional, I feel like using the psychology of challenge to wonder out loud how many of us can be open to asking someone who is different from us, not to say an opinion, but to tell us the story of how they got that way. Opening up the persuasion pores and loosening the chains of our prejudices for a few moments at a time, might be a start.

Tell me a story. Let's just start, okay?