In Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller, Shadow of a Doubt, spunky, high school grad Teresa Wright discovers her beloved uncle is a serial killer. Wright’s subsequent efforts to protect herself and others from psychopathic Joseph Cotten are continually frustrated by the extraordinary denial of her family and her community lost in the “thrall” of the worldly, smooth-talking Uncle Charlie. Heartbroken and distraught, she must contend with her uncle’s violent agenda while being obstructed by a naive and vulnerable community of his enablers and/or soon to be victims.
Wright’s predicament of horror resonates as I witness my – our – psychopathic (proverbial) uncle – Uncle Sam, the U.S. government – perpetrate violent crime upon crime against humanity enabled by a maddening, morally mute, over-trusting, under-informed citizenry.
I can’t wrap my mind or heart around the lack of outrage and empathy among my leaders and the vast majority of my fellow citizens. The Iraq war was launched illegally. The torture program is against the law. The Geneva Convention was ratified by Congress. Habeas corpus has been in place since 1679. The atrocity of 9/11 apparently justified a “gloves off” bloodlust defiance of the legal and moral pillars of our democracy. All these years since, the mandate for constitutional and moral justice "for all" goes unheeded.
John Pilger writes in his article, Mourn on the 4th of July:
Since 1945, by deed and by example, the US has overthrown 50 governments, including democracies, crushed some 30 liberation movements and supported tyrannies from Egypt to Guatemala (see William Blum’s histories). Bombing is apple pie. Having stacked his government with warmongers, Wall Street cronies and polluters from the Bush and Clinton eras, the 45th president is merely upholding tradition. The hearts and minds farce I witnessed in Vietnam is today repeated in villages in Afghanistan and, by proxy, Pakistan, which are Obama’s wars.
In his acceptance speech for the 2005 Nobel Prize for Literature, Harold Pinter noted that "everyone knew that terrible crimes had been committed by the Soviet Union in the postwar period, but "US crimes in the same period have been only superficially recorded, let alone documented, let alone acknowledged, let alone recognised as crimes at all". It is as if "It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening, it wasn’t happening . . . You have to hand it to America . . . masquerading as a force for universal good. It’s a brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis."
I want Pilger to be wrong about our history and this promising new administration. But I am learning more and more of our real “Ugly American” history. And the U.S. militarism I had thought was fueled by the Bushco neocons undeniably has escalated under Obama. Also, the Geneva Convention’s rules of engagement and the writ of habeas corpus go unrestored. In fact, serious amounts of our taxpayer dollars are now and most likely will be spent for the legal defenses of the major architects of illegal torture challenged by their alleged victims.
I was stunned to read that only 29% of the citizenry are against torture of any kind. It awes me to hear torture being justified, normalized, decriminalized by the military, citizenry, politicians, media, and those government lawyers that parsed the letter of the law, trashing its obvious spirit, minimizing the savagery of torture with euphemistic labels that are obligingly echoed by much of the corporate media. "Enhanced interrogation techniques." Monstrous methods of inflicting debilitating psychological and physical pain on victims. Techniques that along with being illegal are universally regarded as unreliable. Reliable only in generating false confessions.
I put on a black armband about two months ago. I needed to concretely register my outrage at what had been immorally and illegally done by my country’s agents. I was troubled by the slowness of this new, seemingly reasonable administration to acknowledge accountability and offer us, deceived citizens, reassurance that such atrocities would not continue and acknowledge culpability to those innocent people whose lives had been damaged and in some cases, over one hundred, literally destroyed by torture (i.e., killed from overzealous torturing).
I had hope this new government would be — well — “stand-up” — transparent — would exhibit basic and common decency. Since only a fraction of the Guantanamo detainees have proven to be legitimate suspects (in blatant contradiction to the lying talking points of our corporate media-courted ex-vice president), some official expression of regret seemed the minimum due those released after having been erroneously rendered, caged and tortured for in some cases seven interminable years. I have heard that a part of the conditions for a detainee’s release involved signing a confidentiality, denial and/or non-liability waiver. A final grand act of psychological torture, it would certainly seem.
One erroneously rendered man, Khalid El-Masri, has not been silent and has presented an outrageous tale of injustice. This from Wikipedia.
El-Masri travelled from his home in Ulm to go on vacation in Skopje at the end of 2003. He was detained by Macedonian border officials on December 31, 2003. …. He was held in a motel in the Republic of Macedonia for over three weeks and questioned about his activities, his associates, and the mosque he attended in Ulm.
The Macedonian authorities also contacted the local CIA station, who in turn contacted the agency’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia.
… a "black snatch team", came to Skopje, and detained him. El-Masri alleges that they beat him, stripped him naked, drugged him, and gave him an enema. He was then dressed in a diaper and a jumpsuit, and flown to Baghdad, then immediately to "the salt pit", a covert CIA interrogation center in Afghanistan which contained prisoners from Pakistan, Tanzania, Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
El-Masri wrote in the Los Angeles Times that, while held in Afghanistan, he was beaten and repeatedly interrogated. He has also claimed that he was sodomized. He was kept in a bare, squalid cell, given only meager rations to eat and putrid water to drink. In February, CIA officers in Kabul began to suspect his passport was genuine. The passport was sent to the CIA headquarters in Langley where in March the CIA’s Office of Technical Services concluded it was indeed genuine.
Discussion over what to do with El-Masri included secretly transporting him back to Republic of Macedonia, without informing German authorities, dumping him, and denying any claims he made. In the end they did inform the German government, without apologizing, and were able to persuade the Germans to remain silent. In March 2004 El-Masri took part in a hunger strike, demanding that his captors afford him due process or watch him die. After 27 days without eating, he forced a meeting with the prison director and a CIA officer known as "The Boss". They conceded he should not be imprisoned but refused to release him. El-Masri continued his hunger strike for 10 more days until he was force-fed and given medical attention. He had lost more than 60 pounds since his abduction in Skopje.
In April 2004, CIA Director George Tenet learned that El-Masri was being wrongfully detained. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice learned of his detention shortly thereafter in early May and ordered his release. El-Masri was released on May 28 following a second order from Rice. They flew him out of Afghanistan and released him at night on a desolate road in Albania, without apology, or funds to return home. He claimed that at the time he believed his release was a ruse, and he would be executed. He was eventually intercepted by Albanian guards, who believed him to be a terrorist due to his haggard and unkempt appearance. He was subsequently reunited with his wife who had returned to her family in Lebanon, with their children, because she thought her husband had abandoned them.
There is so much appalling in this tale. But most staggering to me was that he was confirmed innocent early in March 2004. He was not released until May 28th. Torture of any of these suspects goes against the Geneva Convention and horrifies. But this officially innocent man was kept caged an additional two months while, for a significant part of that time, the Bush cabal presumably haggled over how best to minimize or cover-up their mistake. Abiding by the so-called 11th commandment, “Don’t Get Caught”. Impression management at all costs. No honor. No integrity. No EMPATHY. They had him unceremoniously dumped in a desolate location. This is what they came up with after such an insane period of callousness.
And American citizens ask innocently, “Why don’t they like us?”
This was to be a short introduction to a sober, non-ranting exploration of what I honestly consider a sociopathological lack of empathy among my fellow citizens and our administrations, past and present. There are sociological and psychological phenomena that foster the empowerment of evil in this world, and we are all susceptible to them, myself very much included. We recognize exhibitions of evil in varying degrees in individuals and ourselves on a daily continuum due to many factors, short or long term. Episodic or chronic stress, addict-/co-addict behavior, neurosis, sociopathy.
But when this evil manifests on such a collective and global level, and echoes the worst periods of the world’s history, it is a profound mystery that demands serious study by those awake enough to protest it. I want to call it “the Satanization of America”. For what I see happening, that is not hyperbolic. At this point in my concerned citizenship, I am moving beyond anger into an awe of the scope of the – well – I can only call it downright and seriously unchallenged evil.
In Part 1, I expressed my awe at the degree of compliance of my fellow citizens and the new administration in not doing more to end the status quo of perpetual war, rampant economic injustice, the suspension of habeas corpus and the laws of the Geneva Convention.
I expressed my disappointment that more empathy was not expressed and apparently felt toward the victims of brutality of the Bush torture program. It seems little or no accountability will be demanded from the primary architects of grossly inhumane not to mention illegal activity. And, again, the majority of the American public is enabling this decision.
How can leaders, in this case George W. Bush and his administration, manifesting so little conscience, induce so many to enter their “thrall” and accept and follow illegal and inhumane orders perpetrating hideous and covert torture? My mother used to say “rank has its privilege” but not to what seems such a sociopathological degree.
Scott Peck asserts in his book, People of the Lie, that mental health is “dedication to reality at all costs.” This healthy sense of reality includes an in-touchness with one’s inner reality and a respect for the reality of others. It requires the capacity to fully think and FEEL.
This “feeling capacity” seems most vulnerable to dysfunction in our society and world, among both leaders and followers. Feelings are profoundly under-valued in society, and this feeling dysfunction is at the heart (pun intended) of all existing suffering and injustice. The status quo in America has us locked into perpetual war and there is ever-increasing economic hardship for all but a tiny percentage of the population. A patriarchal win/lose gamesmanship is at play, which the media reinforces, totally ignoring moral consideration. A paradigm shift to partnership and cooperation is the answer, but that would require decisions based on a leadership and society that seriously honors empathy and compassion. Ours does not.
Alice Miller in her book For Your Own Good maintains that unprocessed trauma in one’s childhood, that is, when children are exposed to profound degrees of non-empathy at times from adult caretakers, causes a shutting down of their feeling capacity in adult life and at times a sudden dismantling of their own will for another’s. Such trauma undoubtedly also happened to the original destructive caretakers during their childhoods and the cycle of dysfunction continued on.
Miller contends that these moments of trauma when left unprocessed and un-grieved are enough to induce one to over-identify with an aggressor and enter his or her thrall later in adulthood. Also such conditioning can induce one to project one’s negative feelings about oneself onto others as scapegoats. These people cannot handle and take mature responsibility for whatever guilt, shame, anger, frustration gets triggered within them in the present and must deflect it.
Miller writes of the abuse inflicted on Hitler as a child by his father. She views Hitler’s ruthless cruelty as leader as him identifying with his aggressor father and projecting his contempt for his (Hitler’s) weak child-self onto the Jewish people. She points out that his father was part Jewish and had tremendous shame about that which was why Hitler aimed his hatred at the Jewish people.
Miller also contends that the culture of strict, religious upbringing for children, a poisonous pedagogy she calls it, made the German population easy prey for the authoritarianism of Hitler. She writes.
When still in diapers, the child learns to knock at the gates of love with “obedience” and unfortunately does not unlearn this thereafter.
Just as in the symbiosis of the diaper stage, there is no separation here of subject and object. … In a totalitarian state, which is a mirror of his upbringing, this citizen can also carry out any form of torture or persecution without having a guilty conscience. His “will” is completely identical with that of the government.
Miller points out that both Hitler and Stalin had enthusiastic, highly intellectual followers and she emphasizes that one’s capacity to be “enthralled” by a toxic, controlling leader is not about intelligence. It is about one’s connectedness or disconnectedness to one’s authentic feelings. One’s ability or inability to respond to a situation with one’s heart. The degree of a heart’s response-ability, so to speak.
Scott Peck takes on the horrifying dimensions of what he calls “group evil” in a chapter in People of the Lie devoted to the infamous MyLai massacre during the Vietnam War. He examines the realistic stressors on the troops that day, as well as the dangerous socio- and psychological group and leader dynamics at play that created a “perfect storm” for such atrocity.
Mylai, March 16, 1968:
…the troops of C Company killed at least somewhere between five and six hundred of those unarmed villagers [women, children and old men]. These people were killed in a variety of ways. In some instances troops would simply stand at the door of a village hut and spray into it with rifle fire, blindly killing those inside. In other instances villagers, including children, were shot down as they attempted to run away. The most large-scale killings occurred in the particular hamlet of MyLai 4. There the first platoon of Charlie Company, under the command of Lieutenant William L. Calley Jr., herded villagers into groups of twenty to forty or more, who were then slaughtered by rifle fire, machine gun fire or grenades. It is important to remember, however, that substantial numbers of unarmed civilians also were murdered in the other hamlets of MyLai that day by the troops of other platoons under the command of other officers.
Dr. Peck poses the question of how could approximately 500 men, the majority of whom were obviously not “evil,” participate in such a monstrously evil action, either directly or in the cover-up. (Failure to report a crime is a crime.)
Apparently the killing took place all morning Peck discloses. Only one person, a helicopter pilot, witnessing the slaughter from the air, tried to stop it. He landed his chopper and attempted to reason with some of the troops. His appeals unheeded, he returned to the air and radioed headquarters. When his superior officers responded in an unconcerned way, he gave up and continued on his way.
Peck estimates that 50 participated in the direct killing. 200 were direct witnesses of it. Within a week 500 troops in that task force knew everything that had happened. But the massacre went unreported for a year, when a soldier, who had not been in the task force but had heard about the incident in an idle conversation with friends, wrote several letters to Congress about it after he had returned to civilian life.
Dr. Peck explains the extenuating circumstances the soldiers were dealing with. They were on the other side of the world in a combat zone. They had sustained casualties and injuries during the past month from the Viet Cong and suspected the villagers of hiding them. They were stressed, and tired, and hot and frightened, angry, and/or frustrated. They were anticipating conflict and surprised there were no combatants in the area. Their officers were hungry for success, a high body count.
But the soldiers were also aware of the rules of the Geneva Convention — not to kill unarmed civilians. Peck writes:
Triggers are pulled by individuals. Orders are given and executed by individuals. In the last analysis every single human act is ultimately the result of an individual choice.
Peck speculates that though some of the soldiers probably felt guilt from their behavior, he maintains the majority of soldiers did not confess their crimes because they genuinely did not feel they had committed a crime. He asks how can a sane person commit murder and not acknowledge to himself he has murdered? How could he not carry guilt over such an act, not have a sense of responsibility?
Peck’s evaluation asserts many fascinating and troubling angles on why the soldiers acted as they did.
The first factor he cites is what he calls “specialization” in the minds of the troops as to the role they were there to play. They could, as Peck says, "pass along the moral buck to another part of the group.” Like weapons manufacturers, sellers, lobbyists, etc. who feel no personal responsibility to the consequences of violence from the weaponry. The moral decision as to the use of the weapons was not their part of the job.
Speaking of weaponry, the troops of Vietnam were supplied with the latest in dazzling new technology. Bulldozers, napalm, planes, tanks, bombs and mortars. There was a detachment from responsibility in using them Peck contends. A kind of video-game aloofness. "We don’t kill the people. Our weapons do."
Peck also cites peer-pressure, very powerful in the military. To challenge the will of the group was to invite severe reaction and scapegoating – the offending messenger (threatening to make the group recognize its acts of immorality) can inspire such group rage to get himself or herself socially ostracized and even killed. Also, groups bond by circling the wagons against an enemy out there. "The other." The Vietnamese, not just the Viet Cong, became “demonized” by the soldiers and scapegoated. Also this scapegoating was collectively projecting the "badness" the troops could not attribute to themselves to others.
Another factor Peck explains was a regressive “psychic numbing.” The mind’s ability to anesthetize itself from feelings in the face of trauma. “The horrible becomes normal.”
Also, he points out how obedience is the foundation of military discipline, making the disturbing and quotable assertion that “a follower is never a whole person.” Peck claims that most people are far more comfortable in the "follower" role, leaving the responsibility and decision making to those who step forward as leaders. When ruthless, reckless, immature, even sociopathic persons assume leadership positions, especially in an authoritarian set-up, the results can be tragic.
The officers of Charlie Company wanted a high body count, at least that was what the troops understood. Peck refers to the experiments of Milgram at Yale in 1961 which involved people being so intimidated by an authority in a white coat that they willingly inflicted what they thought were disabling electric shocks on strangers without question. 6 out of 10 of the tested humans were willing to inflict serious harm on strangers out of their conditioning to authority figures. Even that brave person during MyLai who protested the slaughter as it was happening surrendered his attempts after having gone to his immediate supervisors.
There is also a collective group ego and degree of narcissism Peck points out. The troops wanted to be successful. They had endured punishment by the enemy. The dissent against the war at home was hurting and confusing them. They were forcing a surreal, dishonest goal in their killing.
Peck refers, too, to the Washington politicians led by LBJ who were narcissistic about the war in general. Self-satisfied and intellectually lazy he asserts, who role modeled a dehumanizing perspective on the Vietnamese people. They were fighting that ever-specter of Communism, after all. Peck concludes they were exhibiting what Sen. William Fulbright called “the arrogance of power.” The politicians had their reputations invested in winning a futile war as more and more troops and Vietnamese died.
When we escalated the war in Vietnam it became an issue of our "infallibility and preserving our national honor”. The war was begun by lying. The Gulf of Tonkin Incident was a deliberate fraud. "LBJ obtained from Congress the authority to wage the war without Congress ever formally declaring it." Peck maintains that lying is both "a cause and a manifestation of evil."
Then there was the strong, enabling denial of the segment of the US population that over-trusted the motives of its government and military to be in Vietnam. Their collective ego also could not abide the country ever being "in the wrong.”
How much of this not-that-long-ago history resonates with the sad dynamics of our country right now. Can we cultivate our capacity for “empathy” and dedicate ourselves to reality at all costs for our own collective mental health? Can we face down and acknowledge our own crimes as a nation?
Stephen Gowanus writes:
As to the world being a better place for the exercise of US military might, there’s the not inconsequential matter of millions dead in Indochina, thousands blasted away in Yugoslavia, and 5,000 bombed to death in Afghanistan. Ultimately, however, it depends on who you’re talking about. It surely isn’t a better place for the dead, nor those who have been permanently disabled, nor those who have subsequently suffered and died from cancers caused by the rich environmental devastation and widespread broadcast of carcinogens the exercise of US military might inevitably brings. Nor the thousands upon thousands in Iraq who have died from diphtheria, pertusis and other assorted waterborne illnesses, after the Pentagon deliberately destroyed Iraq’s water treatment facilities during the Persian Gulf War, all in defiance of the Geneva Conventions; and nor for the monsters whose births owe much to the use of teratogens, the defoliants used in Vietnam and depleted uranium used in Iraq; nor the limbless children blown to bits by bomblets from unexploded cluster bombs; and nor the American veterans who have died slow, painful deaths, from such mysterious illnesses as Gulf War syndrome, which the Pentagon poohs-poohs as a myth.
Haroon Siddiqui writes:
America plunged Iraq into chaos, shattered the infrastructure and destroyed the society, reducing human beings to their basest instincts. They turned on each other and found safety only in family, tribe, clan and sect. Shiites and Sunnis, who had lived together for ages, ethnically cleansed each other’s neighbourhoods, which to this day remain separated by barricades, walls and checkpoints.
Scott Ritter writes:
In one of the last patrols conducted by U.S. forces before the formal withdrawal from Baghdad, four American soldiers lost their lives. The patrol itself was wholly symbolic—a show of force and will at a time when every military reason for the patrol had ceased to exist—a tragic yet fitting analogy for the entire U.S. military presence in Iraq. No more American troops need to die, or be physically or psychologically maimed, participating in futile “last patrols” designed to salvage the reputations of politicians. There are those who will argue for sustaining the failed military misadventure in Iraq out of a misplaced sense of national pride and honor. President Obama must confront his own ego and hubris and accept the fact that in order to secure a lasting legacy as a peacemaker he will need to ride out the short-term criticism.
As Miller and Peck both discussed, projecting one’s evil outward at others, what Jung explored as dealing with a “shadow”, is reflected in this evaluation by Stephen Gowanus.
The problem is, you can’t kill the bogeyman. Like Freddy Kruger, just when you think you can relax, he’s back. Kaddafi, the Ayatollah, Saddam, Daniel Ortega, Noriega, Milosevic. One goes, the next one comes. Osama fades away. Saddam is ushered out of the wings. Different guy, same bogeyman. And after Saddam, someone else. And then someone else. And someone else. And someone else again. Just one long string of bogeymen, Mencken’s hobgoblins.
It would be going too far to say none of the threats are real. Some are. Victims sometimes strike back, if they’re able to. But call the threats highly exaggerated, many magnified out of proportion, until they become cartoonish distortions whose existence owes everything to their capacity to terrorize, and nothing to reality.
Going along with Washington isn’t going to get rid of bogeymen. Washington needs bogeymen as much as an addict needs regular fixes. Getting rid of the incessant terror, both the manufactured kind, and the kind that arises as a result of US foreign policy, requires a radically different approach.
We owe it to ourselves and our world to stay whole and awake as citizens. To speak truth to power. Once again, “a follower is not a whole person.” As Peck writes:
This is why the individual is sacred. For it is in the solitary mind and soul of the individual that the battle between good and evil is waged and ultimately won or lost.