From Outer Space, Three Guideposts for the Resistance

Later this summer, millions of Americans — from Oregon to South Carolina — will be looking skyward to witness a rare total solar eclipse as the moon briefly blots out the sun. Yet for so many in the United States, dark days aren’t really anything new. And they’re becoming all the more commonplace as Trump, Ryan, and McConnell advance a heartless agenda that dims the lights on pretty much everyone except the privileged few.

Fortunately, resistance groups have been working around the clock to blunt this ongoing assault on basic decency and the public good. They have a different reason to turn to the heavens: chronicles of aliens from outer space offer some valuable lessons about psychological challenges that lie ahead. Let’s consider three examples.

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The Sustaining Fires of Standing Rock: A Movement Grows

Over the past year, a remote area of North Dakota has been the improbable and prophetic site of a struggle with profound ramifications for us all. The confrontation has pitted the Water Protectors — the Standing Rock Sioux, other Native American tribes, and their allies — against the oil profiteers of Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners. The source of conflict is completion of the $3.8 billion, thousand-mile Dakota Access Pipeline — the Black Snake — that Energy Transfer Partners has built to carry fracked oil from North Dakota to Illinois.

The current planned route for the pipeline takes it beneath the Missouri River treacherously close to the Standing Rock and other Sioux reservations. A serious leak will threaten the water supply of these tribes and millions of people who live further downstream. Meanwhile, pipeline construction has already caused irreparable harm to Native American ancestral burial grounds and sacred sites. Continue reading “The Sustaining Fires of Standing Rock: A Movement Grows”

The Predatory Presidency

The season premiere of BBC America’s Planet Earth II includes remarkable footage from the desolate Galapagos Islands. In one striking scene, baby marine iguanas race across the sand, desperately trying to elude dozens of snakes eager for their next meal. Although such stark life-or-death struggles are difficult to watch, it helps to remember that they reflect nature’s dynamic balance.

Far more disturbing — and unnatural — are the Trump Administration’s similarly ruthless predator-like attacks on whatever groups it chooses as its prey. Adding to their repugnance, several of these assaults over the past month — through a series of executive orders — are inherently racist, seemingly propelled by the ugly 14-word credo of white nationalists everywhere: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” Continue reading “The Predatory Presidency”

Bait and Switch: Psychology and Trump’s Voter Fraud

In recent days President Trump has, yet again, asserted that millions of people illegally voted against him last November. Lies of such magnitude and consequence from the White House certainly deserve the attention and scorn they’ve received. After all, once we move beyond the realm of “alternative facts,” the real evidence shows that a person is more likely to be struck by lightning than to impersonate someone else at the polls.

But to fully understand Trump’s complaints about “illegal voters,” we need to recognize that voter fraud and voter suppression are opposite sides of the same coin. By promoting beliefs about the former, the groundwork is laid for pursuing the latter. In this way, tales of unlawful voting have long been a pretext for obstructing the voting rights of U.S. citizens.

The mass manipulation at the heart of this strategy relies on what I call the “combating-injustice mind game.” With two steps, this psychological ploy preys upon the public’s acute and compassionate sensitivity to issues of right and wrong. First we’re bombarded with dire warnings that something terribly unjust is happening. These overwrought claims aim to spur broad outrage and demands for reform. Continue reading “Bait and Switch: Psychology and Trump’s Voter Fraud”

Heart of Darkness: Observations on a Torture Notebook

Just in time for the Trump Administration’s official embrace of brutality, we have another book defending torture: Enhanced Interrogation by psychologist James Mitchell. For those unfamiliar with the author, he’s a central figure in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s scathing 2014 report summary on CIA abuse. And he’s a co-defendant — for having “designed, implemented, and personally administered an experimental torture program” — in the ACLU’s lawsuit on behalf of three war-on-terror detainees (Suleiman Abdullah Salim, Mohamed Ahmed Ben Soud, and the estate of the deceased Gul Rahman).

Although subtitled “Inside the Minds and Motives of the Islamic Terrorists Trying to Destroy America,” Mitchell’s implausible and self-serving account actually reveals much more about him than it does about the men he helped torture. Here are several reasons why. Continue reading “Heart of Darkness: Observations on a Torture Notebook”

Resisting the Mind Games of Donald Trump and the One Percent

trumpSmooth-talking con artists are familiar figures in American folklore. The well-dressed hustler arrives in an unsuspecting town. He pitches some miracle cure or get-rich-quick scheme, door-to-door or from atop a soapbox. Then before his customers realize they’ve been duped, he steals away in search of his next mark. It’s a risky vocation, one that demands quick feet, a keen understanding of human nature, and a talent for telling stories that both arouse and reassure.

But when it comes to profiting off people’s hopes and fears, by far the most successful purveyors of lucrative lies and false promises are some of the denizens of this country’s palatial estates, corporate boardrooms, and corridors of political power. And unlike their small-time counterparts, they’re never on the run — despite the misery they leave in their wake. Enter Donald J. Trump, soon to be the 45th President of the United States.

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Standing Firm for Reform at the APA

Abolitionist and preacher Frederick Douglass once warned, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will.” Feminist and civil rights activist Audre Lorde similarly advised, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Their words are worth remembering as we now witness a coordinated campaign of intimidation, deception, and obfuscation targeting the American Psychological Association’s recent efforts to right its ship and institute meaningful ethical reforms in national security contexts.

Background

To fully understand the duplicitousness of this campaign, some brief background is essential. Following the 9/11 attacks, the APA leadership sacrificed the profession’s do-no-harm commitments, lured by the power and prestige available to participants in the Bush Administration’s brutal “war on terror.” As a result, for over a decade thereafter, the APA’s primary response to evidence of psychologists’ involvement in the abuse and torture of detainees was a combination of stonewalling, denials, and attacks against critics. Continue reading “Standing Firm for Reform at the APA”

When Psychologists Deny Guantanamo’s Abuses

“To be in an eight-by-eight cell in beautiful, sunny Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is not …inhumane treatment.” – former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld

Following a seven-month investigation, in July the Hoffman Report presented extensive evidence of collusion between leaders of the American Psychological Association (APA) and Department of Defense (DoD) officials. This secret collaboration – conducted over a period of years – was aimed at ensuring that APA ethics policies would not constrain DoD interrogation-related activities, and that psychologists would remain in operational roles at Guantanamo Bay and other U.S. overseas detention centers.

The report includes a detailed examination of the APA’s controversial 2005 Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS). The PENS task force, stacked with military intelligence representatives, asserted that Behavioral Science Consultation Team (BSCT) psychologists helped to keep detention and interrogation operations “safe, legal, ethical, and effective” – despite multiple reports that health professionals were among the perpetrators of detainee torture and abuse. Continue reading “When Psychologists Deny Guantanamo’s Abuses”

How the American Psychological Association Lost Its Way

Written with my colleague Jean Maria Arrigo, this op-ed originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

The American Psychological Association is in crisis.

It began last December, when a Senate Intelligence Committee report laid bare the extensive involvement of individual psychologists in the CIA’s black-site torture program. Then in early July a devastating independent report by a former federal prosecutor determined that more than a decade ago top APA leaders — including the director of ethics — began working secretly with military representatives. Together they crafted deceptively permissive ethics policies for psychologists that effectively enabled abusive interrogation of war-on-terror prisoners to continue.

These revelations have shocked and outraged not just psychologists, but also the public at large. After all, the APA’s ethics code for psychologists governs not only its own 80,000 members, but also underlies the policies of most state licensing boards. Continue reading “How the American Psychological Association Lost Its Way”

Rejecting the Obama-Cheney Alliance Against Torture Prosecutions

Obama-Cheney

A decade ago, amid early reports of detainee abuse at CIA black sites and Guantanamo Bay, defenders of U.S. detention and interrogation operations promoted a flawed distinction between torture and “torture-lite.” They argued that, to our nation’s credit, rather than resorting to brutal and violent maiming and mutilation, we employed less cruel techniques—techniques like sleep deprivation, extended isolation, stress positions, sensory bombardment, forced nudity, freezing temperatures, sexual and cultural humiliation, confinement in coffin-like boxes, and threats of harm to family members. This favorable assessment, however, does not withstand scientific scrutiny; these hands-off psychological methods are at least as devastating and debilitating in their long-term and often permanent effects. Yet the notion of “torture-lite” helped to encourage the public to accept the inhuman treatment of detainees.

Now, following last month’s release of the Senate report on the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation program,” we are drawn to another deceptive distinction: the difference between “torture tolerance” on the one hand and what might be called “torture tolerance-lite” on the other. To nobody’s surprise, torture tolerance found its go-to spokesperson years ago in Dick Cheney. The former vice-president predictably returned to center stage to defend the CIA’s methods. His strident message has ranged from “I would do it again in a minute” to “It absolutely did work” to “I have no problem as long as we achieve our objective.” Indeed, Cheney and other Bush Administration officials who instituted the program apparently believe our torturers deserve to be decorated, not indicted.

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