Learned Helplessness

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Since the early days of DP, we have proposed that the network of black sites and detention facilities assembled under the cover of the War on Terror must be understood in all its multiple identities: as punitive incarceration, obviously; as a pedagogy, with the rest of the world as student body; and as a behavioral lab, with detainees as the lab rats. The last of these is particularly troubling for those who think that the Shining City retains any moral authority whatsoever; how to reconcile practices reminiscent of the likes of Josef Mengele with the supreme righteousness of American exceptionalism?

Now it seems that on the same day Barack Obama was reminding the United Nations of the indispensable virtues of the American Way, lawyers for the ACLU were putting the final touches on a lawsuit filed on behalf of three victims of the psycho-behavioral lab, a suit that singles out two clinical psychologists — James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen — yet with legal implications that may eventually work their way considerably up the chain of command, all the way to the Oval Office.

As the legal brief concisely summarizes, Mitchell and Jessen took a theory developed by Martin Seligman with reference to the behavior of dogs when subjected to electric shock, and repackaged it as a theoretical framework for the administration of a regime of torture. We understand that Dr. Seligman would prefer to be known as the father of the “Just Be Happy” school of positive psychology, and not as the midwife of enhanced interrogation. A PDF of his key study is available for scrutiny here; we publish a few excepts below. The images are drawings from the hand of one of the victims, Mohamed Ben Soud.

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Below, an excellent video summarizing the cruel excesses of the torture laboratory, elements of which (such as forced feedings) continue into the present:

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Let us hope that Mitchell and Jessen, whose consulting firm was paid $81,000,000 from the coffers of American taxpayers, are held accountable for their complicity in such abuse, with the three named plaintiffs duly compensated for their suffering. Though the actions of those further up the food chain are still obscured by the fog machine of national security, this lawsuit represents a promising first step towards justice.


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