Archive for the ‘Mental Health’ Category
Interesting article by Tristan Harris at Medium:
I’m an expert on how technology hijacks our psychological vulnerabilities. That’s why I spent the last three years as a Design Ethicist at Google caring about how to design things in a way that defends a billion people’s minds from getting hijacked.
When using technology, we often focus optimistically on all the things it does for us. But I want to show you where it might do the opposite.
Where does technology exploit our minds’ weaknesses?
I learned to think this way when I was a magician. Magicians start by looking for blind spots, edges, vulnerabilities and limits of people’s perception, so they can influence what people do without them even realizing it. Once you know how to push people’s buttons, you can play them like a piano
And this is exactly what product designers do to your mind. They play your psychological vulnerabilities (consciously and unconsciously) against you in the race to grab your attention.
I want to show you how they do it.
Hijack #1: If You Control the Menu, You Control the Choices
Western Culture is built around ideals of individual choice and freedom. Millions of us fiercely defend our right to make “free” choices, while we ignore how those choices are manipulated upstream by menus we didn’t choose in the first place.
This is exactly what magicians do. They give people the illusion of free choice while architecting the menu so that they win, no matter what you choose. I can’t emphasize enough how deep this insight is.
When people are given a menu of choices, they rarely ask:
- “what’s not on the menu?”
- “why am I being given these options and not others?”
- “do I know the menu provider’s goals?”
- “is this menu empowering for my original need, or are the choices actually a distraction?” (e.g. an overwhelmingly array of toothpastes)
For example, imagine you’re out with friends on a Tuesday night and want to keep the conversation going. You open Yelp to find nearby recommendations and see a list of bars. The group turns into a huddle of faces staring down at their phones comparing bars. They scrutinize the photos of each, comparing cocktail drinks. Is this menu still relevant to the original desire of the group?
It’s not that bars aren’t a good choice, it’s that Yelp substituted the group’s original question (“where can we go to keep talking?”) with a different question (“what’s a bar with good photos of cocktails?”) all by shaping the menu.
Moreover, the group falls for the illusion that Yelp’s menu represents acomplete set of choices for where to go. While looking down at their phones, they don’t see the park across the street with a band playing live music. They miss the pop-up gallery on the other side of the street serving crepes and coffee. Neither of those show up on Yelp’s menu.
The more choices technology gives us in nearly every domain of our lives (information, events, places to go, friends, dating, jobs) — the more we assume that our phone is always the most empowering and useful menu to pick from. Is it?
The “most empowering” menu is different than the menu that has the most choices. But when we blindly surrender to the menus we’re given, it’s easy to lose track of the difference:
- “Who’s free tonight to hang out?” becomes a menu of most recent people who texted us (who we could ping).
- “What’s happening in the world?” becomes a menu of news feed stories.
- “Who’s single to go on a date?” becomes a menu of faces to swipe on Tinder (instead of local events with friends, or urban adventures nearby).
- “I have to respond to this email.” becomes a menu of keys to type a response (instead of empowering ways to communicate with a person).
There are more ingenious hacks—e.g., Hack #2: “Put a slot machine in a billion pockets.”
In Quanta Emily Singer writes about a theory proposed by John Cacioppo, the director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, on why loneliness is important:
social animals, we depend on others for survival. Our communities provide mutual aid and protection, helping humanity to endure and thrive. “We have survived as a species not because we’re fast or strong or have natural weapons in our fingertips, but because of social protection,” saidJohn Cacioppo, the director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago. Early humans, for example, could take down large mammals only by hunting in groups. “Our strength is our ability to communicate and work together,” he said.
But how did these powerful communities come to exist in the first place? Cacioppo proposes that the root of social ties lies in their opposite — loneliness. According to his theory, the pain of being alone motivates us to seek the safety of companionship, which in turn benefits the species by encouraging group cooperation and protection. Loneliness persists because it provides an essential evolutionary benefit for social animals. Like thirst, hunger or pain, loneliness is an aversive state that animals seek to resolve, improving their long-term survival.
If Cacioppo’s theory is correct, then there must be an intrinsic biological mechanism that compels isolated animals to seek out companionship. Something in our brains must make it feel bad to be alone and bring relief when we’re with others. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology think they’ve found the source of that motivation in a group of little-studied neurons in part of the brain called the dorsal raphe nucleus. Stimulating these neurons drives isolated mice to find friends, according to research published earlier this year in the journal Cell. The finding provides critical support to Cacioppo’s theory and illuminates a deep connection that links specific structures in the brain to social behavior.
The new study — the first to link specific neurons to loneliness — is part of a growing effort to map out the genetics of social behavior and its underpinnings in the brain. “Over the last roughly 15 years, there has been a tremendous increase in the desire to understand the basis of social behavior, including caring for others, social rejection, bullying, deceit and so forth,” said Patricia Churchland, a philosopher at the University of California, San Diego, who studies the brain and social behavior. “I think we have a good idea for the evolutionary basis for caring and sharing and mutual defense, but the brain mechanisms are bound to be very complex.”
Together, Cacioppo’s work and the new findings from MIT are helping to move loneliness from the realm of psychology and literature to biology. “I think the bigger picture is not to understand why loneliness is painful but rather how our brain is set up to move us out of that lonely state,” said Steve Cole, a genomics researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Instead of thinking about loneliness, we could think about social affinity.”
Gillian Matthews stumbled across the loneliness neurons by accident. In 2012 she was a graduate student at Imperial College London who had been studying how cocaine changes the brain in mice. She would give the animals a dose of the drug, place each one alone in a cage, and then examine a specific set of its neurons the next day. She did the same for a control group of mice, injecting them with saline instead of cocaine.
When Matthews returned to her mice 24 hours after dosing them, she expected to see changes in their brain cells, a strengthening of neuronal connections that might help explain why cocaine is so addictive. To her surprise, both the drug-treated mice and the control mice showed the same changes in neuronal wiring. Overnight, the neural connections onto a certain set of cells had grown stronger, regardless of whether the animals were given drugs or not. “We first thought there was something wrong, that we had mixed up our procedure,” said Matthews, who is now a postdoctoral researcher at MIT.
The brain cells she was interested in produce dopamine, a brain chemical typically associated with pleasurable things. Dopamine surges when we eat, have sex or use drugs. But it does more than simply signal pleasure. The brain’s dopamine systems may be set up to drive the search for what we desire. “It’s not what happens after you get what you want, it’s what keeps you searching for something,” Cole said.
The researchers focused on dopamine neurons in a brain region called the dorsal raphe nucleus, best known for its link to depression. (This may not be a coincidence — loneliness is a strong risk factor for depression.) Most of the neurons that reside there produce serotonin, the chemical messenger that drugs such as Prozac act on. Dopamine-producing cells make up roughly 25 percent of the region and have historically been difficult to study on their own, so scientists know little about what they do.
Matthews speculated that other environmental factors during the experiment might have triggered the changes. She tested to see if simply moving mice to new cages altered the dopamine neurons, but that couldn’t explain the effect. Ultimately, Matthews and her colleague Kay Tye realized that these brain cells were responding not to the drug but to the 24 hours of isolation. “Maybe these neurons are relaying the experience of loneliness,” Matthews said.
Mice, like humans, are social creatures that generally prefer to live in groups. Isolate a mouse from its cage mates, and once confinement ends it will spend more time interacting with other mice, to a much greater extent than if it had been with its mates all along.
To better understand the role the dorsal raphe neurons play in loneliness, the researchers genetically engineered the dopamine cells to respond to certain wavelengths of light, a technique known as optogenetics. They could then artificially stimulate or silence the cells by exposing them to light.
Stimulating the dopamine neurons seemed to make the mice feel bad. Mice actively avoided stimulation if given the choice, just as they might avoid physical pain. Moreover, the animals appeared to enter a state of loneliness — they acted like they had been alone, spending more time with other mice.
“I think this reveals something about how our brains may be wired to make us innately social creatures and protect us from the detrimental effects of loneliness,” Matthews said.
Spectrum of Loneliness
Cacioppo first formally proposed his evolutionary theory of loneliness a decade ago. Strong support comes from the fact that . . .
An interesting sidebar to the article:
The Danger of Solitude
Loneliness not only feels bad, it can have profound health consequences. Animals raised in isolation, from flies to mice to chimps, have shorter life-spans. Solitary confinement — considered one of our harshest criminal punishments — boosts stress in humans and other animals, weakening the immune system and increasing the risk of death. Indeed, some estimates suggest that loneliness raises risk of mortality by nearly 30 percent — as much as obesity — even when controlling for confounding factors like age and depression.
Scientists hope that better understanding the neural circuits underlying loneliness will not only help explain why it exists but also ultimately point to new treatments. “Is there a way,” Hawkley asked, “of moderating activity in the brain like we do for depression?”
Harm reduction is something that those who see things in black and white do not like. It’s similar in this respect to teaching teens about sex and making sure they have access to contraceptives and are immunized against HPV. Those who see things in black and white hate such programs. Better, they say, that teens abstain from sex altogether. Well, possibly, but that will simply not happen. And if teens are going to be sexually active, it’s better to take steps to reduce harm than to allow the harm to happen. The problem is that this does not fit well the absolutist mind, which can grasp only total abstinence or a wanton and dissolute lifestyle. The part in between, in which virtually everyone is found, is invisible to them.
So a shelter that recognizes that some people are alcoholics (which they are) and takes steps to minimize the harm that they suffer is a very good idea—and it does work.
I highly recommend this article by Tina Rosenberg in the Guardian. It begins:
n a grey January morning at 9.15, residents of the Oaks shelter for the homeless started lining up, coffee mugs in hand, at a yellow linoleum counter. At half past the hour, the pour began. The Oaks’ residents are hard-core alcoholics. They line up to get what most people would consider the very last thing they need: an hourly mug of alcohol.
Dorothy Young, the Oaks’ activities coordinator – a stocky, always-smiling middle-aged woman who is part cheerleader, part event planner, part warden, part bartender – stood behind the counter at a tap that dispenses cold white wine. She poured a measured amount of wine into each cup: maximum seven ounces at 7.30am for the first pour of the day, and five ounces each hour after that. Last call is 9.30pm.
The pour is calculated for each resident to be just enough to stave off the shakes and sweats of detox, which for alcohol is particularly unpleasant – seizures from alcohol deprivation can be fatal. The pour is strictly regulated: Young cuts off anyone who comes in intoxicated. They won’t be given another drink until they sober up.
The Oaks is a converted hotel next to a pawnshop, in Carlington, a working-class neighbourhood on the west side of Ottawa, Canada. When residents first arrive, they tend to drink the maximum, every hour, every day. Many also drink whatever they can buy or shoplift outside the building. For most, this gradually changes. They stop drinking outside, begin to ask for fewer ounces, skip pours or have a “special pour” of watered-down wine. Two residents get several hours’ worth at a time to take up to their rooms and ration out themselves. One man gave up alcohol but gets an hourly pour of grape juice, to stay part of the group.
Ten of the Oaks’ residents are mental health patients and don’t get the pour – just fewer than 50 others do. A few are women or younger men, but the majority are men in their 50s; it often takes several decades of drinking before people seek a different life and land here. Standard clothing in January was flannel pyjama bottoms and slippers with a down jacket. Many have long beards, dishevelled hair, and no front teeth – alcohol will do that. Most are sick. Years or decades of drinking have left them with liver, heart and brain damage that will never be reversed. A nurse is on site 40 hours a week. At least once a week and whenever necessary, a doctor and specialist nurses come to see patients. Young leads physical stretching groups, a book club, shopping trips and outings; Little Ray’s Reptile Zoo was a recent hit.
The pour is what makes the Oaks different from every other well-run facility of its kind. It solves the residents’ most urgent problem: where can I get a drink? Virtually all the clients have tried to quit, over and over, and failed. They have spent decades drinking themselves into a stupor each day. One man was taken to A&E 109 times in six months. Another was picked up by the police or paramedics 314 times in one year. They have caused enough chaos and disorder that they have been kicked out of, or barred from Ottawa’s other shelters. Before being accepted at the Oaks, if they could not beg or collect enough empty bottles to recycle to buy booze, many shoplifted rubbing alcohol or Listerine. Some shelters started filling their hand-sanitiser dispensers with soap, because residents drank the rub for the alcohol it contains.
“We have guys with wounds with worms in them,” said Kim van Herk, a psychiatric nurse with Ottawa Inner City Health, an organisation formed 15 years ago to address the needs of the city’s hardest-to-reach homeless people, many of whom are alcoholics.
“And that’s our priority, but it’s not their priority,” added Amanda MacNaughtan, a nurse coordinator.
“They are so dependent on alcohol that it’s their most basic need,” said Van Herk. “If that need is not being met, nothing else matters for them. It’s hard for other people to get their minds around how severe their addiction is – they feel like they’re going to die. But once that need is met for them, they can start looking at other parts of their life.”
The pour creates trust: here is a system that understands residents’ needs. This system loosens them from their drinking friends. It keeps them away from Listerine. Without the pour, they would stay outdoors, begging or stealing, in danger of losing their feet to frostbite. Indoors, they take their medicine, see their doctors and mental health workers, eat actual food, re-establish contact with their families. Giving free booze to homeless alcoholics sounds crazy. But it may be the key to helping them live a stable life. . .
Do read the whole thing. It’s fascinating. The political issues were big, of course, but so were regulations passed for normal drinking establishments. The solution:
There were also legal hurdles. “To the Liquor Licensing Board, we looked like a drinking establishment – but we could never get a liquor licence,” said Turnbull. For example, the cost of putting in a sprinkler system would have been prohibitive. A police sergeant, who was part of the group forming Inner City Health, came up with the solution. The law gave Ontario residents the right to make wine or beer in their own homes and gather to appreciate it – no licence necessary. The MAP was the residents’ home. They could make wine – with a little help from the staff. (More than a little, actually.) And gathering to appreciate it would not be a problem.
Today the wine for both the MAP and the Oaks – which opened a decade later to provide long-term housing for MAP graduates – is made at the Oaks. The winemaking room off the lobby is lined with 25 grey plastic barrels (and kept well-locked). The Oaks staff buy bags of ready-made white wine concentrate – the red turned out to be stronger and got people drunk – then add water and yeast. The residents help by cleaning the barrels and doing other jobs, always closely supervised. Overhead pipes take the wine to the pour counter tap, and staff members drive containers of wine across town to the MAP.
The wine is just about drinkable – probably more so if you’re used to hand sanitiser. “A lot of our clients prefer quantity over quality,” said Bartolo.
Eyal Press has a follow-up to his story (blogged earlier) on how Florida Department of Corrections abuses mentally ill prisoners:
On January 24, 2013, the Florida Department of Corrections received a grievance letter from an inmate named Harold Hempstead, who was imprisoned at the Dade Correctional Institution. The letter was brief and its tone was matter-of-fact, but the allegations it contained were shocking, raising troubling questions about the death of a mentally ill inmate named Darren Rainey, who had collapsed in a shower seven months earlier, on June 23, 2012—a case that I wrote about in the magazine this week. According to Hempstead’s letter, the death had been misrepresented to disguise the abuse that preceded it. The reason Rainey collapsed in the shower, Hempstead alleged, was that he had been locked in the stall by guards, who directed scalding water at him. Hempstead’s cell was directly below the shower. That night, he had heard Rainey yelling, “I can’t take it no more,” he recalled. Then he heard a loud thud—which he believed was the sound of Rainey falling to the ground—and the yelling stopped. Hempstead concluded his letter by calling for an investigation.
A week after receiving this information, the Florida D.O.C. sent Hempstead a terse response. “Your grievance appeal is being returned without action,” it stated. In the months that followed, Hempstead continued to file grievances with the D.O.C. He also wrote to the Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner Department and to the Miami-Dade police. At first, nothing appears to have been done in response to the letters, which is perhaps not surprising: prisoners routinely level false accusations at guards. Hempstead’s allegations might have carried more weight if an employee at Dade had backed them up. However, as I noted in my article, the psychiatrists in the mental-health ward at Dade feared (reasonably) that reporting even minor misconduct could trigger harsh retaliation from the guards, putting their own safety at risk. When Hempstead turned to some counsellors for support and guidance, they urged him to keep his accusations vague and to stop “obsessing” about Rainey. But Hempstead, who has been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, was determined to get the word out. With the help of his sister, Windy, he eventually contacted the Miami Herald, which on May 17, 2014, published a front-page story on Darren Rainey, called “Behind bars, a brutal and unexplained death.”
The literature on whistle-blowers is full of stories about moral crusaders who risk everything to expose misconduct and succeed only in upending their own lives. (This is one of the themes of my own book on the subject, “Beautiful Souls.”) At first glance, Hempstead’s story appears to veer dramatically from this script. Prompted in part by the revelations he made, the Justice Department has launched an investigation to determine whether Rainey’s death was part of a broader pattern of abuse. Some of the guards in the mental-health ward at Dade have been reassigned. The Florida D.O.C. has adopted a series of reforms, including crisis-intervention training for corrections officers and other steps that may deter future violence.
But it is also possible that Hempstead’s story will end less happily, particularly when it comes to the question of whether justice will be done. Although investigations are ongoing, none of the guards who allegedly took Rainey to the scalding shower have been charged with any crimes. (They have since resigned, and their files included no indication of wrongdoing.) Earlier this year, an autopsy of Rainey that was forwarded to state prosecutors ruled the death “accidental,” and did not recommend criminal prosecution.
Meanwhile, Hempstead has paid a steep price for exposing the circumstances under which Rainey died. After the reporter Julie Brown, of the Miami Herald, interviewed him, several corrections officers threatened him with solitary confinement. Hempstead has since been transferred to another prison and placed in “protective management” status by the D.O.C., but his reputation as a whistle-blower (“Miami Harold,” as some now put it) has not been forgotten, and will follow him as long as he remains behind bars.
That will be a long time: specifically, until 2161, the year Hempstead will be released, if he somehow lives long enough to serve the hundred-and-sixty-five-year sentence that Judge Brandt Downey handed him, in 2000, for his involvement in dozens of house burglaries. Hempstead, who is now forty, was twenty-two at the time. . .
I don’t wish to appear apocalyptic, but things in general seem to be breaking down badly, and few are being honest about it. (For example, Cleveland pays $6 million as a settlement with Tamir Rice’s family but admits no wrongdoing, which seems inane: was the $6 million nothing more than a gift in a spirit of generosity? Quite clearly Cleveland believes that there was wrong-doing, else they would not write a $6 million check.)
Eyal Press has a shocking story in the New Yorker:
Shortly after Harriet Krzykowski began working at the Dade Correctional Institution, in Florida, an inmate whispered to her, “You know they starve us, right?” It was the fall of 2010, and Krzykowski, a psychiatric technician, had been hired by Dade, which is forty miles south of Miami, to help prisoners with clinical behavioral problems follow their treatment plans. The inmate was housed in Dade’s mental-health ward, the Transitional Care Unit, a cluster of buildings connected by breezeways and equipped with one-way mirrors and surveillance cameras. “I thought, Oh, this guy must be paranoid or schizophrenic,” she said recently. Moreover, she’d been warned during her training that prisoners routinely made false accusations against guards. Then she heard an inmate in another wing of the T.C.U. complain that meal trays often arrived at his cell without food. After noticing that several prisoners were alarmingly thin, she decided to discuss the matter with Dr. Cristina Perez, who oversaw the inpatient unit.
Krzykowski, an unassuming woman with pale skin and blue eyes, was thirty at the time. The field of correctional psychology can attract idealists who tend to see all prisoners as society’s victims and who distrust anyone wearing a security badge—corrections officers call such people “hug-a-thugs.” But Krzykowski, who had not worked at a prison before, believed that corrections officers performed a difficult job that merited respect. And she assumed that the prison management did not tolerate any form of abusive behavior.
Perez was a slender, attractive woman in her forties, with an aloof manner. When Krzykowski told her that she’d heard “guys aren’t getting fed,” Perez did not seem especially concerned. “You can’t trust what inmates say,” she responded. Krzykowski noted that complaints were coming from disparate wings of the T.C.U. This was not unusual, Perez said, since inmates often devised innovative methods to “kite” messages across the facility.
Krzykowski mentioned that she had overheard security guards heckling prisoners. One officer had told an inmate, “Go ahead and kill yourself—no one will miss you.” Again, Perez seemed unfazed. “It’s just words,” she said. Then, as Krzykowski recalls it, Perez leaned forward and gave her some advice: “You have to remember that we have to have a good working relationship with security.”
Not long after this conversation, Krzykowski was working a Sunday shift, and a guard told her that, because of a staff shortage, T.C.U. inmates would not be allowed in the prison’s recreation yard. The yard, a cement quadrangle with weeds sprouting through the cracks, had few amenities, but for many people in the T.C.U. it was the only place to get fresh air and exercise. Overseeing this activity was among Krzykowski’s weekend responsibilities.
The following Sunday, access was denied again. The closures continued for weeks, and the explanations increasingly sounded like pretexts. When Krzykowski pressed a corrections officer about the matter, he told her, “It’s God’s day, and we’re resting.” In an e-mail to Perez, Krzykowski expressed her concern.
A few days later, Krzykowski was running a “psycho-educational group”—an hour-long session in which inmates gathered to talk while she observed their mood and affect. After a dozen inmates had filed into the room, she noticed that the guard who had been standing by the door had walked away. She was on her own. Krzykowski completed the session without incident, and decided that the guard must have been summoned to deal with an emergency. But later, when she was in the rec yard, the guard there disappeared, too, once more leaving her unprotected amid a group of inmates.
Around the same time, the metal doors that security officers controlled to regulate the traffic flow between prison units started opening more slowly for Krzykowski. Not infrequently, several minutes passed before a security officer buzzed her through, even when she was the only staff member in a hallway full of prisoners. Krzykowski tried not to appear flustered when this happened, but, she recalls, “it scared the hell out of me.”
In theory, the T.C.U. was designed to provide mentally ill inmates with a safe environment in which they would receive treatment that might allow them to return to the main compound. Krzykowski discovered, however, that many inmates were locked up in single-person cells. Solitary confinement was supposed to be reserved for prisoners who had committed serious disciplinary infractions. In forced isolation, inmates often deteriorated rapidly. As Krzykowski put it, “So many guys would be mobile and interactive when they first came to the T.C.U., and then a few months later they would be sleeping in their cells in their own waste.”
Not only did Krzykowski suspect that few inmates in the T.C.U. were getting better; she was certain that the guards were punishing her for the e-mail she had sent to Perez. But she was afraid to complain about her situation. She didn’t even tell her husband, Steven, fearing he would insist that she give notice. He was an unemployed computer-systems engineer, and they could not afford to forgo her modest paycheck. . .
Continue reading. And read it all.
Later in the article:
. . . Even at the height of the economic crisis, jobs in corrections were plentiful in Florida—the state has the third-largest prison population in the country, behind Texas and California. Insuring that inmates with mental illnesses receive psychiatric care is a constitutional obligation, according to Estelle v. Gamble, a 1976 case in which the Supreme Court held that “deliberate indifference to serious medical needs of prisoners” amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.
Around the same time, the Court ruled, in O’Connor v. Donaldson, that a Florida man named Kenneth Donaldson had been kept against his will in a state psychiatric hospital for nearly fifteen years. The ruling added momentum to a nationwide campaign to “deinstitutionalize” the mentally ill. Activists decried the existence of mental hospitals that were filled, as one account put it, with “naked humans herded like cattle.” During the next two decades, states across the country shut down such facilities, both to save money and to appease advocates pushing for reform. But instead of funding more humane modes of treatment—such as community mental-health centers that could help patients live independently—many states left the mentally ill to their own devices. Often, highly unstable people ended up on the streets, abusing drugs and committing crimes, which led them into the prison system.
By the nineties, prisons had become America’s dominant mental-health institutions. The situation is particularly extreme in Florida, which spends less money per capita on mental health than any state except Idaho. Meanwhile, between 1996 and 2014, the number of Florida prisoners with mental disabilities grew by a hundred and fifty-three per cent.
The Supreme Court failed to clarify how psychiatric care could be provided in an environment where the paramount concern is security. According to medical ethicists, prison counsellors and psychologists often feel a “dual loyalty”—a tension between the impulse to defer to corrections officers and the duty to care for inmates. Because guards provide crucial protection to staff, it can be risky to disagree with them. But, if mental-health professionals coöperate too closely with security officials, they can become complicit in practices that harm patients.
After Krzykowski met with Perez, she told herself, “Maybe I’m being too sensitive—boys will be boys.” Aware that she was a newcomer to the world of prisons, she decided that the corrections officers at Dade were far more qualified than she was to determine how to maintain order.
At a morning staff meeting in June, 2011, a psychotherapist at Dade named George Mallinckrodt aired a different view. The previous day, Mallinckrodt announced, an inmate had shown him a series of bruises on his chest and back. The injuries had been sustained, the inmate claimed, when a group of guards had dragged him, handcuffed, into a hallway and stomped on him. Several other inmates confirmed the account, Mallinckrodt told his colleagues. He accused Dade security officials of “sabotaging our caseload,” and said that action needed to be taken.
In the days after the meeting, Krzykowski recalls thinking that “sabotaging” was “a pretty strong word—a loaded word.” Mallinckrodt was known to be on friendly terms with some of the patients in the T.C.U., and Krzykowski felt that he had become too aligned with the inmates—“too much on their side.” She told me, “I thought he’d become an advocate—you know, a hug-a-thug.”
Krzykowski tried to focus on providing good care, but she discovered that she had limited power to make decisions. State law mandated that prisons offer inmates twenty hours of activities a week, and when she was hired she was told that she would be responsible for insuring that this happened in the T.C.U. But every time she proposed an activity—yoga, music therapy—her superiors rejected it. Invariably, the reason cited was that it posed a “security risk,” even though the activities were meant to alleviate aggression.
One day, Krzykowski brought in a box of chalk, in the hope that inmates could draw on the pavement in the rec yard. On another occasion, she gave a rubber ball to an inmate who had schizophrenia; she thought that he would benefit from tactile play. An officer returned both items to her, ostensibly because they posed safety hazards. Krzykowski felt that she was being taught a lesson about knowing her place. “I kept getting the message that whatever security says goes,” she said.
Krzykowski had heard enough stories about inmates assaulting prison staff to know how dangerous it was to work without protection. One day in the rec yard, after a guard left her alone, an inmate sidled up to her and put his hands on her backside. The inmate was tall and imposing, and had been diagnosed as psychotic. Krzykowski thought of screaming for help, but she sensed that the guard who had vanished would not come rushing back if she did. Instead, she froze. After a moment, she hurried away without looking back. The inmate didn’t follow her. For days afterward, she was shaken. “He definitely could have overpowered me,” she said. “I could have been assaulted, raped—anything.” . . .
Pratrap Chatterjee reports at TomDispatch.com:
In our part of the world, it’s not often that potential “collateral damage” speaks, but it happened last week. A Pakistani tribal leader, Malik Jalal, flew to England to plead in anewspaper piece he wrote and in media interviews to be taken off the Obama White House’s “kill list.” (“I am in England this week because I decided that if Westerners wanted to kill me without bothering to come to speak with me first, perhaps I should come to speak to them instead.”) Jalal, who lives in Pakistan’s tribal borderlands, is a local leader and part of a peace committee sanctioned by the Pakistani government that is trying to tamp down the violence in the region. He believes that he’s been targeted for assassination by Washington. (Four drone missiles, he claims, have just missed him or his car.) His family, he says, is traumatized by the drones. “I don’t want to end up a ‘Bugsplat’ — the ugly word that is used for what remains of a human being after being blown up by a Hellfire missile fired from a Predator drone,” he writes. “More importantly, I don’t want my family to become victims, or even to live with the droning engines overhead, knowing that at any moment they could be vaporized.”
Normally, what “they” do to us, or our European counterparts (think: Brussels, Paris, or San Bernardino), preoccupies us 24/7. What we do to “them” — and “them” turns out to be far more than groups of terrorists — seldom touches our world at all. As TomDispatch readers know, this website has paid careful attention to the almost 300 wedding celebrants killed by U.S. air power between late 2001 and the end of 2013 — eight wedding parties eviscerated in three countries (Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yemen). These are deaths that, unlike the 14 Americans murdered in San Bernardino, the 32 Belgians and others killed in Brussels, and the 130 French and others slaughtered in Paris, have caused not even a ripple here (though imagine for a second the reaction if even a single wedding, no less eight of them and hundreds of revelers, had been wiped out by a terror attack in the U.S. in these years).
Any sense of sadness or regret for Washington’s actions, when it comes to the many killed, wounded, or traumatized in its never-ending, implacable, and remarkably unsuccessful war on terror, is notable mainly for its absence from our world. So it’s an extraordinary moment when any Americans — no less a group that has been deeply involved in prosecuting the drone war on terror — publicly expresses empathy for the “collateral damage” inflicted in that ongoing conflict. That’s why TomDispatch regular Pratap Chatterjee brings genuine news today from the heart of America’s drone wars, from those who should best be able to assess the grim reality of just what Washington has been doing in our name. Tom
Drone Whistleblowers Step Out of the Shadows
In Washington’s Drone Wars, Collateral Damage Comes Home
By Pratap Chatterjee
In a trio of recent action-packed movies, good guys watch terrorists mingling with innocent women and children via real-time video feeds from halfway across the world. A clock ticks and we, the audience, are let in on the secret that mayhem is going to break loose. After much agonized soul-searching about possible collateral damage, the good guys call in a missile strike from a U.S. drone to try to save the day by taking out a set of terrorists.
Such is the premise of Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky, Andrew Niccol’s Good Kill, and Rick Rosenthal’s Drones. In reality, in Washington’s drone wars neither the “good guys” nor the helpless, endangered villagers under those robotic aircraft actually survive the not-so secret drone war that the Obama administration has been waging relentlessly across the Greater Middle East — not, at least, without some kind of collateral damage. In addition to those they kill, Washington’s drones turn out to wound (in ways both physical and psychological) their own operators and the populations who live under their constant surveillance. They leave behind very real victims with all-too-real damage, often in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder on opposite sides of the globe.
“Sometimes I am so sad that my heart wants to explode,” an Afghan man says, speaking directly into the camera. “When your body is intact, your mind is different. You are content. But the moment you are wounded, your soul gets damaged. When your leg is torn off and your gait slows, it also burdens your spirit.” The speaker is an unnamed victim of a February 2010 dronestrike in Uruzgan, Afghanistan, but he could just as easily be an Iraqi, a Pakistani, a Somali, or a Yemeni. He appears in National Bird, a haunting new documentary film by Sonia Kennebeck about the unexpected and largely unrecorded devastation Washington’s drone wars leave in their wake. In it, the audience hears directly from both drone personnel and their victims.
“I Was Under the Impression That America Was Saving the World”
“When we are in our darkest places and we have a lot to worry about and we feel guilty about our past actions, it’s really tough to describe what that feeling is like,” says Daniel, a whistleblower who took part in drone operations and whose last name is not revealed in National Bird. Speaking of the suicidal feelings that sometimes plagued him while he was involved in killing halfway across the planet, he adds, “Having the image in your head of taking your own life is not a good feeling.”
National Bird is not the first muckraking documentary on Washington’s drone wars. Robert Greenwald’s Unmanned, Tonje Schei’s Drone, and Madiha Tahrir’s Wounds of Waziristan have already shone much-needed light on how drone warfare really works. But as Kennebeck told me, when she set out to make a film about the wages of the newest form of war known to humanity, she wanted those doing the targeting, as well as those they were targeting, to speak for themselves. She wanted them to reveal the psychological impact of sending robot assassins, often operated by “pilots” halfway around the world, into the Greater Middle East to fight Washington’s war on terror. In her film, there’s no narrator, nor experts in suits working for think tanks in Washington, nor retired generals debating the value of drone strikes when it comes to defeating terrorism.
Instead, what you see is far less commonplace: low-level recruits in President Obama’s never-ending drone wars, those Air Force personnel who remotely direct the robotic vehicles to their targets, analyze the information they send back, and relay that information to the pilots who unleash Hellfire missiles that will devastate distant villages. If recent history is any guide, these drones do not just kill terrorists; in their target areas, they also create anxiety, upset, and a desire for revenge in a larger population and so have proven a powerful weapon in spreading terror movements across the Greater Middle East.
These previously faceless but distinctly non-robotic Air Force recruits are the cannon fodder of America’s drone wars. You meet two twenty-somethings: Daniel, a self-described down-and-out homeless kid, every male member of whose family has been in jail on petty charges of one kind or another, and Heather, a small town high school graduate trying to escape rural Pennsylvania. You also meet Lisa, a former Army nurse from California, who initially saw the military as a path to a more meaningful life.
The three of them worked on Air Force bases scattered around the country from California to Virginia. The equipment they handled hovered above war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as Pakistan and Yemen (where the U.S. Air Force was supporting assassination missions on behalf of the Central Intelligence Agency).
“That is so cool, unmanned aircraft. That’s really bad-ass.” So Heather thought when she first saw recruitment posters for the drone program. “I was under the impression,” she told Kennebeck, “that America was saving the world, like that we were Big Brother and we were helping everyone out.”
Initially, Lisa felt similarly: “When I first got into the military, I mean I was thinking it was a win-win. It was a force for good in the world. I thought I was going to be on the right side of history.”
And that was hardly surprising. After all, you’re talking about the “perfect weapon,” the totally high-tech, “precise” and “surgical,” no-(American)-casualties, sci-fi version of war that Washington has been promoting for years as its answer to al-Qaeda and other terror outfits. President Obama who has personally overseen the drone campaigns — with a “kill list” and “terror Tuesday” meetings at the White House — vividly described his version of such a modern war in a 2013 speech at the National Defense University:
“This is a just war — a war waged proportionally, in last resort, and in self-defense. We were attacked on 9/11. Under domestic law, and international law, the United States is at war with al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and their associated forces… America does not take strikes to punish individuals; we act against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people. And before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured — the highest standard we can set.”
That distinctly Hollywood vision of America’s drone wars (with a Terminatoredge) was the one that had filtered down to the level of Kennebeck’s three drone-team interviewees when they signed on. It looked to them then like a war worth fighting and a life worth leading. Today, as they speak out, their version of such warfare looks nothing like what either Hollywood or Washington might imagine.
“Excuse Me, Sir, Can I Have Your Driver’s License?”
National Bird does more than look at the devastation caused by drones in far away lands and the overwhelming anxiety it produces among those who live under the distant buzzing and constant threat of those robotic aircraft on an almost daily basis. Kennebeck also turns her camera on the men and women who helped make the strikes possible, trying to assess what the impact of their war has been on them. Their raw and unfiltered responses should deeply trouble us all.
Kennebeck’s interviewees are among at least a dozen whistleblowers who have stepped forward, or are preparing to do so, in order to denounce Washington’s drone wars as morally unjustified, as in fact nightmares both for those who fight them and those living in the lands that are on the receiving end. The realities of the day-in, day-out war they fought for years were, as they tell it, deeply destructive and filled with collateral damage of every sort. Worse yet, drone operators turn out to have little real idea about, and almost no confirmation of, whom exactly they’ve blown away. . .
I blogged the incident earlier, based on the Washington Post report, but this report has some additional thoughts. Robert Mackey reports in The Intercept:
An Iraqi college student was removed from a Southwest Airlines flight in Los Angeles this month and interrogated by the F.B.I. because a fellow passenger overheard him speaking Arabic during the boarding process.
The student, Khairuldeen Makhzoomi, a senior at the University of California, Berkeley, was granted asylum in the United States after his father was killed by Saddam Hussein’s secret police. He told The Intercept that he wants Americans to know about what happened to him because the current wave of anti-Muslim hysteria in the United States is counter-productive, since it reinforces the propaganda of the Islamic extremists. Americans who see all Muslims as potential terrorists, he said, are “playing straight into the rhetoric of the Islamic State — they fall into the trap.”
Islamic states doesn’t represent the essence of Islam, we must stand all together Muslims and non Muslims against this derogative ideology.
— Khairuldeen Makhzomi (@KhairyMakhzoomi) April 17, 2016
As the Daily Californian first reported, Makhzoomi had boarded the April 6 flight to Oakland early, due to his frequent flyer status, when he noticed another passenger staring at him as he spoke by phone to his uncle in Baghdad. After he ended the call by telling his uncle that he would phone him again after landing, and used the Arabic word “inshallah,” a common phrase meaning “god willing,” he saw the woman get up from her seat and approach the airline’s staff.
Makhzoomi said that he was then removed from the plane by an Arabic-speaking member of the Southwest staff, Shoaib Ahmed, who questioned him in the presence of security officers on the jetway about why he had been speaking Arabic on the plane.
Makhzoomi, a political science major who hopes to return to Iraq one day to help rebuild the nation, explained that he had been excitedly telling his uncle about an event he had attended the night before, a discussion with Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations Secretary General, at the Los Angeles World Affairs Council. The student, who also runs a popular Facebook group devoted to national reconciliation in Iraq, hadvideo of himself asking the secretary general a question about Iraq’s strategy for retaking territory from Islamic State militants.
After initially apologizing for causing a disruption, Makhzoomi said that he got frustrated and told the Southwest agent, “this is what Islamophobia looks like.” According to the student, the agent was angered by the comment and told him then, “You know what, you’re not going back on the plane.”
Makhzoomi was then taken back to the gate where, he said, he was accused of trying to leave a bag on the plane and searched in front of other passengers. He finally teared up when a police officer asked if he was concealing a knife and “touched my private parts.” The police even wanted to handcuff him at one stage for texting his mother to let her know what was happening.
The incident, he said, triggered a flood of bad memories of life under the Iraqi dictatorship he escaped in 2002 with with his mother and a younger brother, Hamedi, who has Down Syndrome and needs constant care.
The student was then interrogated by three F.B.I. agents, who told him that the passenger who was eavesdropping on his call thought she had heard him use the word “shahid,” the Arabic word for “martyr,” at one point. The word is one of a handful of Arabic expressions commonly used by American bloggers and radio hosts obsessed with the threat of Islamist terrorism. Makhzoomi denied that he had said any such thing.
The federal agents also asked him about his father, Khalid Makhzoomi, a former diplomat who, his son said, was abducted and killed by Saddam Hussein’s internal security service after reporting that a son-in-law of the Iraqi dictator was involved in corruption.
About two and a half hours after his flight left, Makhzoomi was finally released and given a refund by the same Southwest employee who had taken him off the plane. He then flew home on Delta and spent a few days alone with his family, sleeping a lot. “When I came home, I was very shocked,” he said.
One reason he decided to publicize the incident, he added, is to draw attention to the counter-productive wave of anti-Muslim hysteria in the United States, since it reinforces the propaganda of Islamic extremists. Americans who see all Muslims as potential terrorists, he said, are “playing straight into the rhetoric of the Islamic State — they fall into the trap.”
There is ample testimony to Makhzoomi’s moderate political leanings online — fromhis writing on Iraq for Huffington Post, to what is posted on his own Facebook page, and the anti-sectarian group he started on the social network, United 4 Iraq, which has more than 130,000 subscribers. Two weeks before the incident, for instance, he shared an illustration denigrating Islamic State’s delusions of grandeur.
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