In a well-known paper entitled On Being Sane in Insane Places, psychologist David Rosenhan argued that the use of labels such as “mentally ill” to describe individuals can have unintentional negative side-effects. Rosenhan’s paper discussed a study he conducted in the early 1970s testing the legitimacy of psychiatric diagnoses made by health care professionals. Rosenhan arranged for eight “normal” individuals to fake symptoms of schizophrenia to gain admission into one of 12 regular hospitals’ psychiatric wards. If successfully admitted, each “pseudopatient” was to immediately cease the faking of any schizophrenic symptoms and attempt to convince the psychiatric staff that they in fact were not “mentally ill.” Rosenhan reported that while it was relatively easy for the pseudopatients to acquire the label “schizophrenic,” it was extremely difficult for them to shed that label once it was assigned. Rosenhan stated that the average length of hospitalization for his pseudopatients was 19 days, and that each pseudopatient was discharged with a diagnosis of schizophrenia “in remission” rather than having the label completely removed.
Now consider the implications of Rosenhan’s study on the label “terrorist” as often used by U.S. officials and the mainstream media. Ever since George W. Bush dubbed his military campaign in the Middle East the “War on Terror,” we have been hearing incessantly about how vital it is that we defeat those “terrorists” who “hate our freedoms.”
I think it is fair to say that the diagnosis “terrorist” is mostly a claim about one’s psychological make-up, similar to the way the diagnosis “schizophrenic” is psychological. When one labels someone a terrorist, one is saying something about a person’s thoughts, beliefs, desires, etc. (e.g. “they hate our freedoms”).
Similar to the Rosenhan study, it appears that the label “terrorist” is assigned somewhat easily and liberally: there are apparently a lot of them and we are to believe that there will continue to be a lot of them for a long time.
It is not clear who is diagnosing this large population of people as “terrorists,” or what criteria they might be using to do so (I don’t think Bush or Obama are credentialed psychologists); but, unlike the Rosenhan study, they must be doing their diagnosing outside of a highly controlled inpatient unit since all those terrorists are scattered in hiding places throughout the Mid-East. If it was relatively easy for Rosenhan’s pseudopatients to receive a false diagnosis in a controlled environment, how likely is it that our government officials (or military soldiers and pilots for that matter) have accurately diagnosed the condition of “terrorist” from afar? I can’t say I like those odds.
Despite the difficulties inherent in the labeling of terrorists, there is the companion problem of figuring out how and when the “disease” of terrorism might be “cured.” President Obama’s official webpage (whitehouse.gov) boldly asserts that it is his policy to “Defeat Terrorism Worldwide.” This implies that there is a “cure” for the psychological mind-set of “terrorism.” If we apply Rosenhan’s study here, we are likely to believe that once a person is labeled a “terrorist,” there is probably little chance for that person to shed that label. Beyond the realm of mental illnesses like schizophrenia, we tend to see this “permanent labeled-ness” when it comes to the label “criminal” (e.g. the ramifications of being a “registered sex offender,” etc.).
So, it seems fair to say that since there is a population of people now known as “terrorists,” there is no realistic chance for these psychologically-afflicted “terrorists” to be “cured,” and there is no real chance that these afflicted individuals will be given a clean bill of health and “discharged” back to their normal lives. Once a terrorist, always a terrorist, I suppose.
Knowing the implications of such a label kind of makes me wish there was a more rigorous process of diagnosing “terrorism.”
President Obama appears to understand the ramifications of labeling terrorists as well; however his approach is a little different from mine. Rather than be more careful in the labeling of humans as terrorists to prevent unnecessary hardships for non-afflicted individuals, Obama would rather just eliminate everyone who happens to have been labeled a terrorist. Obama states on his webpage that he intends to “ensure that our military becomes more stealthy, agile, and lethal in its ability to capture or kill terrorists.”
See, there is no “cure” listed there. Just “capture or kill.” This is how we deal with the psychological state of “terrorism.” Since the disease cannot be killed, the host cannot shed the label; therefore, we simply must kill or quarantine the host. That is how we “defeat terrorism.”
It is interesting to note that Rosenham’s paper went on to discuss ways in which the label “mentally ill” could lead to the dehumanization of the person carrying that label as well…I wonder if there’s a parallel with the label “terrorist” on that front as well?