John Whitehead's Commentary
Welcome to the American Gulag: Using Involuntary Commitment Laws to Silence Dissenters
What happened to 26-year-old decorated Marine Brandon Raub—who was targeted because of his Facebook posts, interrogated by government agents about his views on government corruption, arrested with no warning, labeled mentally ill for subscribing to so-called “conspiratorial” views about the government, detained against his will in a psych ward for standing by his views, and isolated from his family, friends and attorneys—has happened many times throughout history in totalitarian regimes.
As Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anne Applebaum observes in Gulag: A History: “The exile of prisoners to a distant place, where they can ‘pay their debt to society,’ make themselves useful, and not contaminate others with their ideas or their criminal acts, is a practice as old as civilization itself. The rulers of ancient Rome and Greece sent their dissidents off to distant colonies. Socrates chose death over the torment of exile from Athens. The poet Ovid was exiled to a fetid port on the Black Sea.”
The advent of psychiatry eliminated the need to exile political prisoners, allowing governments instead to declare such dissidents mentally ill and unfit for society. For example, government officials in the Cold War-era Soviet Union often used psychiatric hospitals as prisons in order to isolate political prisoners from the rest of society, discredit their ideas, and break them physically and mentally through the use of electric shocks, drugs and various medical procedures. Insisting that “ideas about a struggle for truth and justice are formed by personalities with a paranoid structure,” the psychiatric community actually went so far as to provide the government with a diagnosis suitable for locking up such freedom-oriented activists.
In addition to declaring political dissidents mentally unsound, Russian officials also made use of an administrative process for dealing with individuals who were considered a bad influence on others or troublemakers. Author George Kennan describes a process in which:
The obnoxious person may not be guilty of any crime . . . but if, in the opinion of the local authorities, his presence in a particular place is “prejudicial to public order” or “incompatible with public tranquility,” he may be arrested without warrant, may be held from two weeks to two years in prison, and may then be removed by force to any other place within the limits of the empire and there be put under police surveillance for a period of from one to ten years. Administrative exile–which required no trial and no sentencing procedure–was an ideal punishment not only for troublemakers as such, but also for political opponents of the regime.
Sound familiar? This age-old practice by which despotic regimes eliminate their critics or potential adversaries by declaring them mentally ill and locking them up in psychiatric wards for extended periods of time is a common practice in present-day China. What is particularly unnerving, however, is that this practice of making individuals disappear is happening with increasing frequency in America. Indeed, Raub’s case exposes the seedy underbelly of a governmental system that is targeting Americans—especially military veterans—for expressing their discontent over America’s rapid transition to a police state.
It’s no coincidence that within days of Raub being seized at his Virginia home on August 16, 2012, and forcibly held in a VA psych ward, news reports started surfacing of other veterans having similar experiences. These incidents are merely the realization of various U.S. government initiatives dating back to 2009, including one dubbed Operation Vigilant Eagle which calls for surveillance of military veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, characterizing them as extremists and potential domestic terrorist threats because they may be “disgruntled, disillusioned or suffering from the psychological effects of war.”
That the government is using the charge of mental illness as the means by which to immobilize (and disarm) these veterans is diabolically brilliant. With one stroke of a magistrate’s pen, these service men are being declared mentally ill, locked away against their will, and stripped of their constitutional rights.
Coupled with the Department of Homeland Security’s report on “Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment,” which broadly defines rightwing extremists as individuals and groups “that are mainly antigovernment, rejecting federal authority in favor of state or local authority, or rejecting government authority entirely,” these tactics bode ill for anyone seen as opposing the government. Although these initiatives caused an initial uproar when announced in 2009, they were quickly subsumed by the ever-shifting cacophony of the news media and its ten-day cycles. Yet while the American public may have forgotten about the government’s plans to identify and disable anyone deemed a potential “threat,” the government has put its plan into action.
Thus, what began as a blueprint under the Bush administration is being used as an operation manual under the Obama administration to exile those who are challenging the government’s authority. An important point to consider, however, is that the government is not merely targeting individuals who are voicing their discontent so much as it is locking up individuals trained in military warfare who are voicing feelings of discontent.
Under the guise of mental health treatment and with the complicity of government psychiatrists and law enforcement officials, these veterans are increasingly being portrayed as ticking time bombs in need of intervention. Just earlier this year, for instance, the Justice Department launched a pilot program aimed at training SWAT teams to deal with confrontations involving highly trained and often heavily armed combat veterans.
One tactic being used to deal with so-called “mentally ill suspects who also happen to be trained in modern warfare” is through the use of civil commitment laws, found in all states and employed throughout American history to not only silence but cause dissidents to disappear. For example, in 2006, NSA officials attempted to label former employee Russ Tice, who was willing to testify in Congress about the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program, as “mentally unbalanced” based upon two psychiatric evaluations ordered by his superiors. In 2009, NYPD Officer Adrian Schoolcraft had his home raided, and he was handcuffed to a gurney and taken into emergency custody for an alleged psychiatric episode. It was later discovered by way of an internal investigation that his superiors were retaliating against him for reporting police misconduct. Schoolcraft spent six days in the mental facility, and as a further indignity, was presented with a bill for $7,185 upon his release.
Most recently, of course, Virginia’s civil commitment law was used to justify arresting and detaining Marine Brandon Raub in a psychiatric ward. On Thursday, August 16, 2012, a swarm of local police, Secret Service and FBI agents arrived at Raub’s home, asking to speak with him about posts he had made on his Facebook page made up of song lyrics, political opinions and dialogue used in a political thriller virtual card game. Among the posts cited as troublesome were lyrics to a song by the rap group Swollen Members and Raub’s views, shared increasingly by a number of Americans, that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were an inside job.
After a brief conversation and without providing any explanation, levying any charges against Raub or reading him his rights, law enforcement officials then handcuffed Raub and transported him first to the police headquarters, then to a medical center, where he was held against his will due to alleged concerns that his Facebook posts were “terrorist in nature.” Outraged onlookers filmed the arrest and posted the footage to YouTube, where it quickly went viral, which may have helped prevent Raub from being successfully “disappeared” by the government.
In a hearing on August 20, government officials pointed to Raub’s Facebook posts as the sole reason for their concern and for his continued incarceration. Ignoring Raub’s explanations about the fact that the Facebook posts were being read out of context, Raub was sentenced to up to 30 days’ further confinement in a psychiatric ward. While in the psych ward, Raub reported being interrogated by medical staff about his views about the government and threatened by a doctor with brainwashing.
On August 23, Circuit Court Judge Allan Sharrett declared the government’s case to be lacking in factual allegations and ordered Raub immediately released. However, for the tens of thousands of individuals detained—wrongfully or otherwise—under civil commitment laws every year, regaining their freedom is nearly impossible, predicated as it is on a bureaucratic legal and judicial system.
The problem, of course, is that the diagnosis of mental illness, while a legitimate concern for some Americans, has over time become a convenient means by which to penalize certain “unacceptable” social behaviors. Most recently, we have witnessed the pathologizing of individuals who resist authority as suffering from oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), defined as “a pattern of disobedient, hostile, and defiant behavior toward authority figures.”
Under such a definition, every activist of note throughout our history—from Mahatma Gandhi to Martin Luther King Jr.—could be classified as suffering from an ODD mental disorder. Yet psychologist Bruce Levine, who has studied the issue of dissent and mental illness, suggests that the problem may have less to do with any true illness on the part of the anti-authoritarians than it does with those in field of psychology and psychiatry who are pre-disposed to labeling anti-authoritarians as mentally ill. Says Levine, “In my career as a psychologist, I have talked with hundreds of people previously diagnosed by other professionals with oppositional defiant disorder, attention deficit hyperactive disorder, anxiety disorder and other psychiatric illnesses, and I am struck by how many of those diagnosed are essentially anti-authoritarians, and how those professionals who have diagnosed them are not.”
Of course, this is all part of a larger trend in American governance whereby dissent is criminalized and pathologized, and dissenters are censored, silenced or declared unfit for society. Governmental authorities at all levels have made it abundantly clear that they want no one questioning their authority. And for those who do take to the streets to express their opinions and beliefs, rows of riot police, clad in jackboots, military vests, and helmets, holding batons, stun guns, assault rifles, and sometimes even grenade launchers, are there to keep them in line.