The question of whether or not the United States employs torture - regardless of the semantic tricks and redefinitions of the Bush administration - must be answered in the affirmative by anyone who has picked up a newspaper in the last few years.
But I never expected this gruesome reality to hit so close to home in the form of the direct implication of a prominent Penn professor.
Jane Mayer, a reporter for the New Yorker, provides a comprehensive and telling account of the tortuous crimes of the administration in her new book The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals.
In the blogosphere, her text has sparked something of a war against Dr. Martin Seligman, Fox Leadership Professor of Psychology, former American Psychological Association president, father of a Summer Pennsylvanian news editor and one of Penn's most prominent faculty members, known for his extensive contributions to the field of positive psychology.
Mayer claims that, in May 2002, Seligman gave a lecture at the San Diego Naval Base sponsored by the government program SERE (short for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) concerning his theory of "learned helplessness."
The SERE program historically instructed U.S. soldiers on how to endure and evade torture techniques while in enemy captivity, going as far as waterboarding soldiers in the program.
Present in the San Diego audience were two SERE military psychologists, James Mitchell and John Jessen, who, according to a fellow interrogator, embraced the "learned helplessness" paradigm. The theory was apparently taught in a SERE setting.
In short, the theory of learned helplessness demonstrates that helplessness can be conditioned. In the mid-60's, Seligman and colleagues discovered that dogs who were caged and shocked at random without means of escaping or predicting the nature of the shock later acquiesced to the pain when provided with means to escape.
In her 2005 piece for the New Yorker, "The Experiment," Mayer claims that Mitchell suggested treating a difficult detainee like the dogs in Seligman's experiment.
This connection between Seligman's theory and its apparent application in interrogation, combined with Seligman's lecture in San Diego, has led to denunciations on the left-wing blog Daily Kos, as well as the claim by Andrew Sullivan that Seligman "assisted the U.S. government in the torture of detainees."
But there is, in fact, no evidence that Seligman directly assisted in torture.
And there is no evidence that Seligman suggested the application of "learned helplessness" in interrogations.
After the Pentagon Office of Inspector General released a report implicating Jessen and Mitchell in SERE reverse-engineering - using knowledge of torture for interrogation instead of the resistance of interrogation - email correspondence between a Daily Kos blogger and Seligman revealed that Seligman could not have known of the nefarious use of his theory.
He was a civilian and thus unauthorized to access such information.
Yet there is no doubt that Seligman will be further targeted unjustly as an accomplice in torture.
The history of science is riddled with examples of prudent research that, in the hands of despicable men, is used for evil. This will always be the case.
But it is not the responsibility of the scientist, nor is it possible, for him to regulate exactly how his research is implemented outside of the laboratory.
We must not forget that Seligman lectured to SERE with an explicit purpose: to provide the men and women of our military with the means to resist torture. This intention is beyond reproach. Indeed, it is the act of a patriot.
I admittedly use the word patriot with trepidation, having time and time again observed the administration's manipulation of the term to simplify and conceal immoral and often illegal actions.
On a similar note, considering the far-reaching grasp of many governmental agencies, I cannot rule out the possibility that Seligman is connected to the CIA, in which case direct evidence of his involvement could exist in the clandestine abyss of government operations.
Still, there does not exist ample evidence to condemn Seligman.
We have endured nearly a decade of government secrecy. The few open windows into interrogation techniques reveal a sordid and depressing view: sexual humiliation, destruction of the Koran, waterboarding, stress positions - I'm sorry to say the list goes on.
The aura of anger surrounding these revelations is understandable, but we should not allow it to encroach upon rationality and the necessity of evidence. We should not allow it to destroy the reputation of a man who has devoted decades of research towards means of alleviating human suffering through the field of positive psychology.
I can only hope that I am right, and that Dr. Seligman was not involved in the systematization of war crimes and utter brutality. Otherwise his reputation will go the way of America's. He will have to face, as all Americans must in a way today, his devolution from man to monster.
Josh Stanfield is a rising College senior from Poquoson, Va. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.orgComments powered by Disqus
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