Undiplomatic Banner
7th August 2008 Charles J. Brown
12:44 pm

Compare and Contrast


I was struck by similarities in the following two descriptions of individuals subjected to information overload.

First, a description from Jane Meyer’s The Dark Side of the Bush Administration trying to cope with a deluge of raw intelligence after 9/11:

[Bush] and Cheney demanded to see all available raw intelligence reports concerning additional possible threats to America on a daily basis. . . . Others who saw the same intelligence reports found the experience mind-altering.  .  .  .Readers suffered “sensory overload” and became “paranoid.” . . .[T]he cumulative effect turned national security concerns into “an obsession.”

Now take a look at this report from Carol Rosenberg of The Miami Herald about the trial of Salim Hamdin, Osama bin Laden’s driver and, subsequent to this report, convicted war criminal:

In the al Qaeda world of driver Salim Hamdan, exhortations to martyrdom and railing at the infidels [became] mind-numbing.  Or so claimed several FBI agents who testified last week at the trial of Osama bin Laden’s driver, the Yemeni with a fourth-grade education. ”Mr. Hamdan pretty much got tired of hearing the same thing over and over again,” said FBI Agent George Crouch Jr. And so, he “tuned out.”

Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting some sort of moral equivalence here.  But the fact that both Bush Administration staffers and al Qaeda camp followers had similar sensory overload experiences is quite striking.  There’s a reason that interrogators, torturers, and cults all use sensory overload — it softens up targets and makes them much more willing to cooperate.

The jury in Hamdan’s case apparently concluded that sensory overload was an inadequate defense (I say apparently because the court’s decision to keep the jurors’ identities secret means we’ll never really know what was behind their deliberations).

Yet the almost exact same conditions existed inside the Bush Administration in the days after 9/11.  And it was the fear and panic of those early days, as Meyer notes, that led Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Ashcroft, and others to conclude that they needed to use any and all means necessary to protect the United States.

Perhaps the time has come to stop thinking of the Bush Administration as evil and start thinking of them as untreated survivors of post-traumatic stress disorder.  PTSD certainly can significantly alter an individual’s behavior, and historians have documented numerous instances where a national trauma has generated what some have called collective psychosis.

That said, I don’t think we can excuse what someone has done just because they were traumatized.  Permit that argument, and almost anything — say, for example, torturing suspects or flying planes into buildings — can be justified.  And that way lies true madness.

This entry was posted on Thursday, August 7th, 2008 at 12:44 pm and is filed under foreign policy, politics, war & rumors of war. It is tagged under , , , , , , , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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