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Sunday, August 09, 2009

Entrapment: Government as Mind Manipulator

The latest edition of This American Life told the story of a man who was railroaded for an alleged terrorist conspiracy that was completely a creation of the Federal government. The program unfortunately made it sound as if this kind of tactic had only started after 9/11. I wrote them to correct this false impression, and also point out some implications that are often overlooked:

The policy of entrapment-by-informant didn't start after 9/11. Two earlier cases spring to mind.

In 1998 Theresa Squillacote and Kurt Stand, who had leftist sympathies and worked with the State Department,
were led through an extended process of emotional manipulation to agree to pass classified information to a purported agent of post-apartheid South Africa. In the process, therapist/patient confidentiality was also violated. The very fact that the FBI's Behavioral Sciences Unit supervised this operation is indicative of how much this "crime" was of their own making.

A few years earlier, a man was pressured, cajoled, and ultimately even coerced (by an informant pretending to have Mob connections) to agree to a plan to murder a couple boys for a "snuff" film (which films have never actually existed, by the way). This setup is described in harrowing detail in Laura Kipnis' book
Bound and Gagged.

This policy looks even darker when you consider its conscious use of psychological science for manipulative purposes. After all, what is the function of government supposed to be? It's supposed to help socialize us -- to condition us to internalize inhibitions against destructive behavior. Here, instead, we find government intentionally desocializing someone, destroying their inhibitions, trying to "unmake" them as a social being.

If you respond that the targeted individuals couldn't do these things if they hadn't the predisposition, you're overlooking one of the major findings of social psychology, which is that people can often be induced to do things outside their normal behavioral range by various high-pressure tactics, and then to rationalize them by changing the way they see themselves, altering their moral self-definition. In fact, such covert manipulation of cognitive dissonance is one of the chief techniques of cult brainwashing. And it appears to be just what's being done in some of these entrapment cases, especially where the Behavioral Sciences Unit is involved.

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