June 18, 2006

The Horrors of Our Time, II: Perfecting Denial -- and Blaming the Victim, Even After Death

In the first part of this series, I provided some background for a consideration of certain aspects of the horrors unleashed on our world in the last several years, including the recent suicides at Guantanamo.

Most people don't understand the psychological dynamics of suicide at all. I myself didn't for many decades. Even now, I don't consider my grasp of the mechanisms involved to be complete by any means, but it is certainly much fuller than it once was. The widespread and profoundly destructive cultural ignorance I refer to is displayed not only by our government's official reaction to the suicides at Guantanamo (a reaction that was obviously and crudely dictated in part by superficial political concerns, which only made it that much uglier), but by most Americans.

And I can guarantee you that the same ignorance is shared by some of you reading this now. More on that point in a moment.

First, consider a few excerpts from a recent article about the detainee suicides, "There Is No Hope at Guantanamo":
THREE DETAINEES at the U.S. prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, took their own lives in early June. But as far as the U.S. government is concerned, their suicides were an act of aggression against the U.S.

"They are smart, they are creative, they are committed," Rear Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., the commander at Guantánamo, said of detainees following the suicides. "They have no regard for life, neither ours nor their own. I believe this was not an act of desperation, but an act of asymmetrical warfare waged against us."


One of the prisoners, 22-year-old Talal Abdulah Yahya al-Zahrani, was just 17 years old when he was sent to Guantánamo in 2001.

According to defense lawyers, there have been dozens of suicide attempts in the camp's four-year history, but none have been successful until now. Over one eight-day period in August 2003, for example, 23 detainees tried to hang or strangle themselves, including 10 on a single day.

Hunger strikes have also become common at the camp. Earlier this month, at least 89 prisoners were participating in the latest one--a protest, according to lawyers, fueled by conditions at the camp that include brutal interrogation methods and indefinite detention.

Lawyers and former detainees say the suicide attempts are an act of desperation in the face of the legal limbo prisoners are consigned to.

"There is no hope in Guantanamo," Shafiq Rasul, a British man released from Guantánamo who went a hunger strike while behind bars to protest beatings, told the Associated Press. "The only thing that goes through your mind day after day is how to get justice or how to kill yourself. It is the despair--not the thought of martyrdom--that consumes you there."

Bill Goodman, legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, told the New York Times, "The total, intractable unwillingness of the Bush administration to provide any meaningful justice for these men is what is at the heart of these tragedies. We all had the sense that these men were getting more and more hopeless. There's been a general sense of desperation that's been growing."
I set apart the following excerpt from the article -- so that you can contemplate by itself the nature of the government response. It is loathsome beyond my ability to describe accurately:
But the Pentagon and the Bush administration dismiss the suicide attempts as stunts by "terrorists" to get public sympathy. In fact, suicide attempts are officially classified as "manipulative, self-injurious behavior."

After the successful suicides this month, Colleen Graffy, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy, sounded decidedly less than "diplomatic" as she told BBC News that the suicides were a "good p.r. move to draw attention," adding that they were part of a strategy and "a tactic to further the jihadi cause."

Since detainees had access to lawyers, received mail and had the ability to write to families, she added, it was hard to see why the men had not protested about their situation using "other" methods.
For a moment, consider the issue of serious depression and suicide in the way we sometimes and very tragically encounter it in our everyday lives. Perhaps you or someone you know has said something like the following to a friend who was deeply depressed over a period of several months: "Come on! Pull yourself together. Everyone has problems. Just suck it up. Deal with it. Get on with your life. Things are tough all over."

Or if a friend confided, with great pain and reluctance, that he had thoughts of suicide now and then, perhaps you said something like this: "Don't you understand how selfish that would be? What about the terrible pain you would cause your friends and family? Doesn't that mean anything to you?"

Have you or someone you know ever talked about "forgiving" someone for having killed herself -- or about how "weak" she was?

All these remarks fall into the same category as our government's response to the suicides at Guantanamo, and they reveal the same kind of denial -- more specifically, the denial of another person's pain, even when that pain is agonizing in its intensity. If you or anyone you know has made such comments, you and they are not that different from the government in terms of the psychological issues involved.

Does that make some of you very angry? Good. Then I have your attention.

I'll discuss these issues in much more detail in the next part of this series, later today or tomorrow. In the meantime, if these questions are of interest to you, allow me to recommend some earlier essays of mine on this subject:

The Suicide Taboo -- this essay discusses the underlying dynamics of suicide, relying on the work of Alice Miller (who discusses Sylvia Plath's history as a notable example of the pattern involved), together with a story about military suicides along with some personal observations

When the Pain Can Be Borne No Longer -- some excerpts from the writing of Doug Barber, an Army reservist who served in Iraq, describing his experiences after returning to civilian life, and who subsequently killed himself

When the Demons Come -- the second half of this essay discusses the demons that plague many Vietnam veterans -- the same demons that finally came for Mr. Barber -- and the continued denial engaged in by many of today's warhawks

"Suck It Up": The Denial Continues, and Kills Once More -- an examination of the same dynamics in the suicide of a New Orleans police officer in the wake of Hurricane Katrina

The Dynamics of Suicide, Revisited -- concerning a detailed news story about the suicide of a young man at the age of 27, and how it tragically reveals all the mechanisms discussed by Miller in her work; some of you may recognize aspects of yourself in the young man's mother, who talks of "forgiving" her son for taking his own life and about her anger, and whose denial is shared by many others

The Indifference and Denial That Kill -- an essay reflecting on the life and work of Iris Chang, and about her suicide at the age of 36, and further examining the dynamics identified by Alice Miller

And many more of my essays based on the work of Alice Miller, together with brief descriptions of their contents, are listed here. A number of those entries deal with prison abuses, both in the United States and abroad, and with the general horrors of war, including the still-unfolding horrors in Iraq.

(By the way: I originally had a certain idea and plan about how I would post certain of my essays here, and others at The Sacred Moment, where, for example, most of the major pieces dealing with the implications of Alice Miller's work will be found. In the event, dividing my writing in the manner I had anticipated doesn't work in practice as I had thought it would. So when I have time, I'll be moving all the entries at The Sacred Moment over here. But I probably won't have a chance to do that for a couple of months at least. There's a great deal of writing I now want to do, including many entries about current events as well as my series on Systems of Obedience, for which I've only written the first essay. I've outlined the next 10 or 12 installments of that series, so I want to get through much of that before dealing with more "cosmetic" tasks. But eventually, everything will be here, in one place. I think that will be easier all around.).