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Archive for the ‘Mental Health’ Category

The shelter that gives wine to alcoholics in a program of harm reduction

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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. . .

Continue reading.

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.

Written by LeisureGuy

5 May 2016 at 11:05 am

A whistle-blower behind bars

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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. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 April 2016 at 8:21 am

How the US Prison Nation treats its mentally ill: Badly

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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.” . . .

Written by LeisureGuy

25 April 2016 at 12:33 pm

Inside the Devastation of America’s Drone Wars

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Pratrap Chatterjee reports at

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. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 April 2016 at 11:38 am

More on passenger kicked off plane for the offense of speaking Arabic

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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.

ISIS Islam

. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 April 2016 at 5:21 pm

Kicking people off of airplanes for bad reasons

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Like because they have been diagnosed as having cancer. Or because they are talking to their uncle in Arabic, a “dangerous” language, according to the airline. (I don’t really see how a language can be dangerous, but certainly the authoritarian mindset sees all sorts of dangers in what people say, or think.)

Yanan Wang reports in the Washington Post:

Earlier this month, Khairuldeen Makhzoomi found himself at a gathering with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. He had been invited to the dinner-and-lecture event in Los Angeles by a friend who works for the World Affairs Council, and he was thrilled.

The University of California at Berkeley senior is a double major, after all, in political science and Near Eastern studies. At the close of Ban’s speech, Makhzoomi recounted Sunday night in a phone interview with The Washington Post, he stood up to ask the secretary general about Iraqi popular mobilization units, militia groups fighting against the Islamic State.

The question was greeted by applause from around the room, followed by a lengthy response from the U.N. chief. It was the kind of exchange that Makhzoomi lives for: He came to the United States as an Iraqi refugee six years ago, and his research now centers on how life can be improved in his home country.

But the next day, April 6, the 26-year-old’s fortunes took a sharp turn.

Makhzoomi had just settled into his seat on a Southwest Airlines flight when he pulled out his cellphone to call his uncle in Baghdad. His uncle is a political analyst, so Makhzoomi wanted to discuss the previous night’s event with him.

He was speaking into the phone in Arabic when he noticed that the woman in the seat in front of him was turned with her neck craned in his direction, staring.

Feeling discomfited, Makhzoomi cut his conversation short. “Inshallah,” he told his uncle, using a customary Arabic phrase meaning “God willing.” “I’ll call you when I land.”

After Makhzoomi hung up, he noticed that the woman had left her seat and was making her way up the aisle, weaving around passengers who were still boarding.

His sense of unease deepened. A thought occurred to him: “I hope she’s not reporting me.”

Except, Makhzoomi is now certain, that is precisely what happened. Shortly after the woman’s departure, he said a Southwest employee informed him, “Sir, you need to step out of the plane right now.”

Makhzoomi was then led off the plane to a hallway by the boarding gate, where three police officers were awaiting him. He said the Southwest employee appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent and began speaking to him in Arabic. The employee told him he used to live in Dubai and asked him where he was from. At Makhzoomi’s urging, the employee switched back to English.

“Why would you speak in Arabic on the airplane?” the employee asked him. “It’s dangerous. You know the environment around the airport. You understand what’s going on in this country.”

The employee’s tone made Makhzoomi feel demeaned, he said. He was immediately deferential.

“I’m sorry,” Makhzoomi responded. “I shouldn’t have done that.” But the employee continued to be accusatory, and Makhzoomi said he grew frustrated. Exasperated, the college student said, “This is what Islamophobia has done.”

This angered the employee only further, he said. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 April 2016 at 12:39 pm

Why Luck Matters More Than You Might Think—And In More Ways Than You Might Think

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Robert Frank writes in the Atlantic:

I’m a lucky man. Perhaps the most extreme example of my considerable good fortune occurred one chilly Ithaca morning in November 2007, while I was playing tennis with my longtime friend and collaborator, the Cornell psychologist Tom Gilovich. He later told me that early in the second set, I complained of feeling nauseated. The next thing he knew, I was lying motionless on the court.

He yelled for someone to call 911, and then started pounding on my chest—something he’d seen many times in movies but had never been trained to do. He got a cough out of me, but seconds later I was again motionless with no pulse. Very shortly, an ambulance showed up.

Ithaca’s ambulances are dispatched from the other side of town, more than five miles away. How did this one arrive so quickly? By happenstance, just before I collapsed, ambulances had been dispatched to two separate auto accidents close to the tennis center. Since one of them involved no serious injuries, an ambulance was able to peel off and travel just a few hundred yards to me. EMTs put electric paddles on my chest and rushed me to our local hospital. There, I was loaded onto a helicopter and flown to a larger hospital in Pennsylvania, where I was placed on ice overnight.

Doctors later told me that I’d suffered an episode of sudden cardiac arrest. Almost 90 percent of people who experience such episodes don’t survive, and the few who do are typically left with significant impairments. And for three days after the event, my family tells me, I spoke gibberish. But on day four, I was discharged from the hospital with a clear head. Two weeks later, I was playing tennis with Tom again.

If that ambulance hadn’t happened to have been nearby, I would be dead.

Not all random events lead to favorable outcomes, of course. Mike Edwards is no longer alive because chance frowned on him. Edwards, formerly a cellist in the British pop band the Electric Light Orchestra, was driving on a rural road in England in 2010 when a 1,300-pound bale of hay rolled down a steep hillside and landed on his van, crushing him. By all accounts, he was a decent, peaceful man. That a bale of hay snuffed out his life was bad luck, pure and simple.

Most people will concede that I’m fortunate to have survived and that Edwards was unfortunate to have perished. But in other arenas, randomness can play out in subtler ways, causing us to resist explanations that involve luck. In particular, many of us seem uncomfortable with the possibility that personal success might depend to any significant extent on chance. As E. B. White once wrote, “Luck is not something you can mention in the presence of self-made men.”

My having cheated death does not make me an authority on luck. But it has motivated me to learn much more about the subject than I otherwise would have. In the process, I have discovered that chance plays a far larger role in life outcomes than most people realize. And yet, the luckiest among us appear especially unlikely to appreciate our good fortune. According to the Pew Research Center, people in higher income brackets are much more likely than those with lower incomes to say that individuals get rich primarily because they work hard. Other surveys bear this out: Wealthy people overwhelmingly attribute their own success to hard work rather than to factors like luck or being in the right place at the right time.

That’s troubling, because a growing body of evidence suggests that seeing ourselves as self-made—rather than as talented, hardworking, and lucky—leads us to be less generous and public-spirited. It may even make the lucky less likely to support the conditions (such as high-quality public infrastructure and education) that made their own success possible.

Happily, though, when people are prompted to reflect on their good fortune, they become much more willing to contribute to the common good.

Psychologists use the term hindsight bias to describe our tendency to think, after the fact, that an event was predictable even when it wasn’t. This bias operates with particular force for unusually successful outcomes.

In his commencement address to Princeton University’s 2012 graduating class, Michael Lewis described the series of chance events that helped make him—already privileged by virtue of his birth into a well-heeled family and his education at Princeton—a celebrated author:

One night I was invited to a dinner where I sat next to the wife of a big shot of a big Wall Street investment bank, Salomon Brothers. She more or less forced her husband to give me a job. I knew next to nothing about Salomon Brothers. But Salomon Brothers happened to be where Wall Street was being reinvented—into the Wall Street we’ve come to know and love today. When I got there I was assigned, almost arbitrarily, to the very best job in the place to observe the growing madness: They turned me into the house derivatives expert.

On the basis of his experiences at Salomon, Lewis wrote his 1989 best seller,Liar’s Poker, which described how Wall Street financial maneuvering was transforming the world.

All of a sudden people were telling me I was a born writer. This was absurd. Even I could see that there was another, more true narrative, with luck as its theme. What were the odds of being seated at that dinner next to that Salomon Brothers lady? Of landing inside the best Wall Street firm to write the story of the age? Of landing in the seat with the best view of the business? … This isn’t just false humility. It’s false humility with a point. My case illustrates how success is always rationalized. People really don’t like to hear success explained away as luck—especially successful people. As they age, and succeed, people feel their success was somehow inevitable.

Our understanding of human cognition provides one important clue as to why we may see success as inevitable: the availability heuristic. Using this cognitive shortcut, we tend to estimate the likelihood of an event or outcome based on how readily we can recall similar instances. Successful careers, of course, result from many factors, including hard work, talent, and chance. Some of those factors recur often, making them easy to recall. But others happen sporadically and therefore get short shrift when we construct our life stories.

Little wonder that when talented, hardworking people in developed countries strike it rich, they tend to ascribe their success to talent and hard work above all else. Most of them are vividly aware of how hard they’ve worked and how talented they are. They’ve been working hard and solving difficult problems every day for many years! In some abstract sense, they probably do know that they might not have performed as well in some other environment. Yet their day-to-day experience provides few reminders of how fortunate they were not to have been born in, say, war-torn Zimbabwe.

Our personal narratives are biased in a second way:  . . .

Continue reading.

Read the whole thing. Later in the article:

In an unexpected twist, we may even find that recognizing our luck increases our good fortune. Social scientists have been studying gratitude intensively for almost two decades, and have found that it produces a remarkable array of physical, psychological, and social changes. Robert Emmons of the University of California at Davis and Michael McCullough of the University of Miami have been among the most prolific contributors to this effort. In one of their collaborations, they asked a first group of people to keep diaries in which they noted things that had made them feel grateful, a second group to note things that had made them feel irritated, and a third group to simply record events. After 10 weeks, the researchers reported dramatic changes in those who had noted their feelings of gratitude. The newly grateful had less frequent and less severe aches and pains and improved sleep quality. They reported greater happiness and alertness. They described themselves as more outgoing and compassionate, and less likely to feel lonely and isolated. No similar changes were observed in the second or third groups. Other psychologists have documented additional benefits of gratitude, such as reduced anxiety and diminished aggressive impulses.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 April 2016 at 12:14 pm


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