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Carol Smaldino

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What Would It Take to Get Us to Care About Torture?

Posted: 04/ 8/2012 10:04 pm

I am aiming the question first at mental health practitioners since the idea of helping people towards sanity and well-being has been supported by the principle of doing no harm. As I see it, our own ethical obligations include looking openly and critically at the human rights considerations of our own citizens and any upon whom we exert influence.

The implication is that we are obligated to notice and help those we serve, to notice what obstacles they face in life which are duly tragic and traumatic. In fact, one of the most toxic attitudes on the part of a therapist, can be that of patronizing those who are in desperate need of validation for their keen observations -- and that is even when they cause discomfort to authorities -- parents, teachers, peers, etc.

In today's Huffington Post, there is an article by Dan Froomkin, entitled "New Bush-Era Torture Memo Released, Raises Questions About What Has Changed And What Hasn't." It gives those of us who care some opportunity to try to focus attention in this land of politicians hating politicians, caring about economics only or paths to heaven and hell, of a kind that is generally missing. While it can be argued that there are many issues that we might protest, and that it's difficult to keep up with those because we are treating emergencies, this one is egregious in for me, obvious and terrible in ways that set or maintain frightening precedents.

And there is another thing. In the realm of psychology, and mental health intervention in general, there has largely been an emphasis on individual change, or family or couples' shifting of gears. That can tend to highlight the need for inner change to the extent that at times we underestimate the urgency of social dangers. When we analyze everything to bits and blame personal disasters on individual psychodynamics alone, we lose something. We lose our opportunity and our need to understand how we as a society are managing our systems of values, of laws, of what winds up being seen as acceptable or unacceptable behavior.

I have heard several people suggest that with our current rate of social media exchanges, there is an almost on purpose creation of an ADD society, where there is a deficit of attentional capacity. Interestingly enough, I've found with my own experience of ADD, a sharpening not only of attention at least some of the time, but a dramatic heightening of my awareness of how things and people intersect. Nonlinear thinking, for example.

So for example, I know that Martin Seligman, Ph.D, is known widely for his research on dogs at the University of Pennsylvania where he coined the term "learned helplessness". In addition he is known widely as the "father" of positive psychology. But then, if you simply Google his suspected role in the interrogation policies in the Bush Administration you can find a plethora of instances where he is correlated, including in the books, The Dark Side:The Inside Story of How The War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals (by Jane Mayer) and Bright-Sided:How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America (by Barbara Ehrenreich).

Now one thing we might focus on, besides the mental health fields being blinded to the effects of torture -- is a resultant numbing of our sense of caring and even valuing the dignity of humanity in general. We become detached from some acts of torment and torture while we grieve madly at others; we keep our causes and caring discrete.

Now look here: Positive psychology, as studied coherently and profoundly by Barbara Ehrenreich, can have the effect of placing attitude over reality; in fact she points to Seligman's pointing to shifting attitude as one solution to shifting mood. So, if we apply this to torture and watch George W. Bush say nothing in the realm of techniques used against detainees was illegal, we can extrapolate to considering his attitude shaped his mood, and no doubt his way of seeing. Sadly what he might have thought was a positive look at things, went on to determine the course of a country.

Daniel Froomkin points out that the memo that has "come to light", written by then-State Department counselor Philip Zelikow who concluded that tactics such as the simulation of drowning in water-boarding were illegal, and that the interrogation techniques used under the Bush Administration amounted to war crimes.

My question for the moment is whether we who include those who know the slings and arrows or torture, whether through racism or being survivors of the Holocaust or any imprisonment that has been brutal or unjust, can connect the dots as someone with ADD might just be better to do. The nonlinear mind has advantages, many of you know already.

One of the things I have felt helpful in helping people deal with wishes for revenge, is help in grieving that revenge alone won't settle the pain that is often underlying the immediacy of the impulse. But what is more, I share and feel strongly about, is that when we hurt or kill people we are irrevocably bound to them. We are irrevocably bound to our own actions, about which we need more available consciousness.

Jung knew this part of us is there in all of us, the part that can commit evil, feel it and ignore it. If we can admit that we can all be as base as can be, we might care to care about getting the current Administration to stop the torture, and to shed light on the motivations behind our staying distracted.

 

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