Dr. Brian’s Top 15 Lessons from Seasons 1 & 2 of “Fatal Vows”

04/09/2014

FatalVows101DrBrianRussell3CAUTION: These are my (not necessarily my co-host Stacy’s or the network’s or the production company’s) current “Top 15” lessons for viewers to learn from “Fatal Vows” based on the recurring themes in the deadly divorces that we’ve chronicled on the show in Seasons 1 & 2. They’re not the only lessons that viewers can learn from the show, nor will learning them guarantee viewers happy, healthy marriages (which involve a lot more work than just learning these lessons). Learning – and living – these lessons should, however, reduce the chances of viewers’ marriages ending in murder!

LESSON 1: AIM HIGH – When you’re a grown woman (or man) and your significant other isn’t in school, isn’t a stay-at-home parent/homemaker, and is still doing the same job that he (or she) did in high school, still spending significant numbers of hours playing video games, etc., it’s time to ask yourself whether you’ve aimed high enough in life (and ladies, ask yourself that before you get pregnant).

LESSON 2: SHOOT FOR MENTAL HEALTH AND STABILITY – It’s sad when someone else has been through horrendous things in life, but sometimes, through no fault of their own, they’re simply not equipped or inclined to be great partners, and you don’t have to feel guilty for passing on them (but you should feel guilty if you make a child with someone who’s clearly likely to be an unhealthy and potentially unsafe parent).

LESSON 3: BEWARE THE “BAD BOY” – The “bad boy” (or girl) who parties excessively, lives recklessly, is selfish, self-entitled, unreliable, impulsive, has a criminal record, etc., no matter how “exciting” he (or she) may seem initially, is probably just that, BAD, both for you and for any kids you’d make with that person (and “bad” people usually don’t change much, so forget about trying to “tame” one).

LESSON 4: BEWARE THE PSYCHOPATH – Anyone who seems to take pleasure in the suffering of others (or animals), especially others about whom he or she is supposed to care, is a DANGEROUS person from whom you and your kids should get away, right away.

LESSON 5: BEWARE THE HOVERER – Obsessive possessiveness, even if it seems flattering initially, is a precursor to obsessive abusiveness (obsessively possessive people tend to objectify human beings and eventually treat them like inanimate things).

LESSON 6: BEWARE THE PARENT OF MINOR CHILDREN – Step-parenting minors is a minefield that you’re probably not going to navigate unscathed and, more often than not, isn’t a net benefit to the minors involved (and making new kids when one or both parties already have minor kids selfishly marginalizes existing kids who’ve been through enough already).

LESSON 7: NEVER HAVE AN EXTRAMARITAL AFFAIR WITH/WHILE A MARRIED PERSON – Cheating on a spouse is spousal abuse, cheating on a spouse with children is child abuse, and while the married person in that situation is the abuser, an affair partner is an accomplice (this is the #1 precursor of murder on “Fatal Vows”).

LESSON 8: LISTEN TO YOUR LOVED ONES’ CONCERNS ABOUT YOUR SIGNIFICANT OTHER – They may be more objective than you are at the moment, and marriages that don’t have the support of one or both spouses’ family(ies) are less likely to succeed (And to the loved ones: If you see signs that someone you love is being abused, SAY SOMETHING).

LESSON 9: WAIT! – Wait to get married until you’ve been an adult for a while and spent SUBSTANTIAL time with the other person IN PERSON (not on the Internet), AS ADULTS (you need to see the other person handle all kinds of different situations and demands so that you can assess his or her maturity, compassion, ethics, morals, work ethic, integrity, intelligence, emotional intelligence, reliability, etc., which takes time, and if it’s really right, there’s no rush), and WAIT to make a baby until you’re married.

LESSON 10: IT TAKES TWO – If you’re having to compete with someone else for your spouse’s romantic attention, something’s wrong, and competing isn’t likely to solve it, nor is inviting a third party into your relationship (the ONLY sustainably-stable romantic relationship structure is a dyad – two people, period).

LESSON 11: YOUR SPOUSE’S AFFAIR PARTNER KNOWS – Affair partners almost ALWAYS know about the spouse and kids and they DON’T CARE, so there’s probably no point in “confronting” a third-party home-wrecker.

LESSON 12: ADDICTION IS ABUSIVE – It’s not a disease, and it isn’t a “Please get help” situation; it’s a “You’re out of here and you’re not coming back, at least until you’ve gotten help and established a sustained pattern of clean, sober, sane, safe, responsible living” situation (and NEVER start a relationship with/while a person in “rehab”).

LESSON 13: NOBODY SNAPS – Lethal violence is virtually always the conscious culmination of an escalating pattern of deliberate violence, so you need to get yourself and any minor children involved away from a violent person at the FIRST signs of domestic violence (which is child abuse even if it’s “just” spouse-on-spouse in the presence of children), period.

LESSON 14: GET LEGAL ADVICE FROM A LAWYER – If an abusive spouse threatens to take custody of your kids in court if you file for divorce or separation, go see a lawyer and learn your rights; it’s often an empty threat (and if you find your spouse “embezzling” family funds for personal fun, take steps to protect your assets, as well as your kids and yourself, so that you and the kids don’t end up homeless, or worse).

LESSON 15: PANIC IN PUBLIC – Your chances of surviving an assault are probably going to be lower if you let the attacker take you from a public place to a private place, so I’d never let myself be taken from a public place, if I could help it (I’d make a scene, draw attention to myself, and make the attacker have to choose to either do the crime right there in front of whoever may be looking or listening or filming, OR, flee the scene and, if caught, just face an “attempt” charge; my money says they’ll usually flee instead of following through in public).

Stay tuned for more lessons in Season 3, premiering this fall on Investigation Discovery!


Dear Dr. Brian

04/06/2014

Dear Dr. Brian,

Why do you seem so sour on step-parenting on your show?

Thanks,

Second-Time Step

Dear Second-Time Step,

Thank you for your question, and please allow me to preface my answer by saying that I can’t give an opinion about any viewer’s or reader’s specific step-family in a forum like this (such an opinion would require a thorough evaluation of all parties involved) — I can only give a summation of my general personal and professional beliefs about step-parenting. That said, I’m not sour on all step-parenting, just the majority of step-parenting of minors, and here’s why:

Rarely do I see single parents’ remarriages as net benefits to their minor children. In my opinion, the role of a stepparent is probably the most difficult interpersonal role that a human being can play, and the vast majority of people who play it play it badly — even highly-intelligent, highly-emotionally-intelligent (intelligence and emotional intelligence aren’t the same thing and don’t necessarily correlate positively) people tend to have a lot of difficulty with it. That’s a big part of why the divorce rate for marriages in which one or both parties has/have existing minor children is estimated to be upward of 70%. Keep in mind, virtually all minor children of single parents are children who’ve already been through something traumatic — sometimes the death of a parent, but more often, abandonment or divorce. In my opinion, in the vast majority of cases, single parents’ attention thereafter ought to be focused on “damage-control” — minimizing the damage done to their children by whatever traumatic events split up their families, which I believe is a “full-time job” — as long as those children are minors.

When single parents of minor children focus attention on their own love lives and on meeting their own romantic/sexual needs, it diverts attention from those minor children’s many needs, and when single parents try to enmesh their love lives with their minor children’s lives, it can be extremely selfish and damaging to those minor children in my opinion. Given the incredibly low success rate of such romances (the vast majority of which don’t result in marriage) and marriages (the vast majority of which end in divorce), exposing minor children to them exposes those children, at the very least, to high chances of enduring additional emotional trauma(s) (and less often — but still far too often — single parents who get overly focused on their own love lives rush into romances, cohabitation, and remarriage, don’t do nearly enough “due diligence” in evaluating their new spouses’ suitability to be stepparents, and end up negligently exposing their children not only to emotional abuse and trauma but also to physical/sexual abuse and trauma at the stepparents’ hands).

On a day-to-day practical level, just imagine, for instance, how a 12-year-old girl feels when she has to get fully dressed in the morning before leaving her bedroom for some cereal because there might be an unrelated male (a stepfather and/or stepbrother) in the family kitchen. Uncomfortable adjustments like that are enough to breed plenty of justifiable resentment, both toward the step-parent and toward the parent, but that often pales in comparison to the resentment bred by discipline/behavior issues in the household. Stepparents tend to have huge problems figuring out where the lines are between their rights as co-owners/lessees of the homes in which their stepchildren reside and the realities that they (the stepparents) are not those children’s parents. When children say to stepparents, “You’re not my mom/dad; you can’t tell me what to do!” they’re substantially correct, and while that doesn’t mean that those children can’t or shouldn’t be expected to behave reasonably respectfully, conflict between children and stepparents tops the list of issues that sink marriages involving preexisting minor children. And perhaps the greatest and most justifiable resentment breeder of all is when parents and stepparents marginalize existing children by making new children together. All of the above is compounded exponentially, by the way, when a parent’s relationship with a stepparent began while that parent was still married to the child(ren)’s other parent, i.e. when it started with an extramarital affair, in which case the parent’s child(ren) will likely and justifiably resent the stepparent, if not also the parent, as a home-wrecker worthy of little-to-no respect.

For such reasons, then, I believe that in most cases (acknowledging some exceptions), putting minor children into step-parenting situations is more harmful than helpful to those children. And those children are always my — as they should be everyone’s — priority (hence the eye rolls that you’ve probably seen on television when I’m discussing minor children whose last names are, for example, Johnson and Robertson, with a mother, stepfather, and step-siblings whose last name is Jones — because I know what those children likely have been put through so that Mrs. Jones can be “happy” for a while). Once one makes a child, the adult’s mission in life is to get that child to adulthood as physically, intellectually, emotionally, socially, and morally healthy as possible. It’s no longer about the adult — it’s all about the child; every major life decision made by that adult ought to be guided by that child’s best interests as long as that child’s a minor (I know, some single parents who wish to focus attention on their own love lives may rationalize that their romantic happiness is somehow a prerequisite to their children’s happiness, but it’s not). I believe, therefore, that any parent of a minor who’s contemplating dating, let alone having an extramarital affair, let alone introducing a love interest to his/her minor child(ren), let alone remarrying, let alone making a new child, ought to ask him/herself, “How is this helpful to my [and, if applicable, to my partner's] minor child(ren)?” and if they’re honest with themselves, I believe that the answer, on balance, most often, is “It’s probably not.”

Again, I can’t give an opinion about any viewer’s or reader’s specific step-family situation in this forum, and yes, I do know of instances in which having a stepparent has been more helpful than harmful to specific minor children. Given, however, the vast majority of cases in which I’ve been involved as a lawyer, psychologist, child-custody expert, national television news analyst, and host of a national television show about divorces-turned-deadly, I retain great admiration for single parents who essentially put their love lives on hold (at least in the presence of their children) and focus their interpersonal attention and energy on identifying and meeting their children’s needs while those children are minors (and by the way, I also retain great admiration for single would-be stepparents who say to single parents of minors, “Focus on your children right now, and when the time’s right, you’ll have someone waiting for you”).

Thanks again for your question,

Dr. Brian

(“Dear Dr. Brian” is published for public-interest and entertainment purposes only – it does not establish doctor-patient or attorney-client relationships, and it should not be used as a substitute for psychological, legal, or financial advice from a licensed professional in your area.)

Dear Dr. Brian

09/09/2013

Dear Dr. Brian,

Can you provide any backup for a mom who’s trying to explain why a 15-year-old boy shouldn’t date a 12-year-old girl? What is this world coming to?

Thanks,

Mortified Mom

Dear Mortified Mom,

The fact that a 15-year-old boy finds a 12-year-old girl attractive doesn’t necessarily mean that the boy is developmentally abnormal — boys’ hormones are raging at that age, and given variations in maturation rates, there’s also variation in how much younger a 12-year-old girl might actually appear, both physically and socially. But regardless, I think your instincts are absolutely correct that allowing them to date would be inappropriate, despite the fact that American culture seems to be portraying romantic and sexual behavior at younger and younger ages as “normal.” Three years is a lot bigger difference at 15 and 12 than it will be in another 10 years when they’re 25 and 22. Right now, it’s 20% of his entire life and 25% of hers. Despite any differences in maturation rates, they still ought to be at different places developmentally (psychologically, emotionally, physically) and in different peer groups (with which neither child’s peer bonding would be helped, in my opinion, by focusing a lot of his or her attention on a non-peer social relationship). There are also potential serious legal ramifications, for the boy particularly, if things were to get (or even to be alleged to have gotten) out of hand.

Here’s my overriding principle, though: At ages 12 and 15, neither one of them really ought to be “dating” anyone at all (in the sense of spending significant time with an opposite-sex friend absent any group context, adult supervision, etc.), age difference or not. I often talk about a power-responsibility continuum, along which children begin with 0% of the responsibility for their lives, and thus, 0% of the decision-making power over their lives. At age 18, though, those children will become adults — legally speaking at least — and then they’ll have both 100% of the responsibility and 100% of the decision-making power. So, rather than having them go from 0-100% without any practice taking responsibility and exercising decision-making power, I think that the ideal is for them to gradually, over time, throughout childhood and particularly adolescence, demonstrate progressive responsibility and be allowed to practice exercising commensurately-progressive decision-making power, while their parents are around to actively observe, guide, and as necessary, regulate the pace with which responsibility and power are passed from parents to child (because until a child reaches 18, the parents remain ultimately responsible for his or her physical, psychological, emotional, academic, and moral health).

One of the many specific areas in which I think adolescents need to gain some experience and practice exercising responsibility and power is whether, when, and how to spend time with members of the opposite sex, but again, I think that ought to be something that happens slowly, as track records of responsible decision-making are established, beginning in non-dating contexts, over the course of adolescence. I don’t think, for instance, that having sex is a responsible choice for a minor to make at any point (I don’t think that anybody who’s not prepared, if necessary, to meet all of the needs — financial, physical, psychological, emotional, moral, etc. — of a child ought to be having sex), but I think that dating (appropriate individuals, at appropriate ages, with appropriate parental guidance, after establishing track records of appropriate decision-making) can be done responsibly. I generally don’t think, however, that a 15-year-old could have established enough of a track record of responsible choices (particularly if he’s focusing his attention on a 12-year-old) to even be dating yet (other than, for example, attending a school-sponsored dance with a close-aged peer “date” with other peers and adult supervision present). Good instincts, Mortified Mom, and you can tell the 15-year-old I said so. He may not be happy now, but if he arrives at college without a criminal record, without an STD, without any dependents, and with a well-developed ability to make responsible choices where girls are concerned, he ought to look back and be glad.

Dr. Brian

(“Dear Dr. Brian” is published for public-interest and entertainment purposes only – it does not establish doctor-patient or attorney-client relationships, and it should not be used as a substitute for psychological, legal, or financial advice from a licensed professional in your area.)

Dear Dr. Brian

07/27/2013

Dear Dr. Brian,

I’ve been meaning to ask you why you feel voters are able to tolerate and forgive the behavior of [New York City Mayoral Candidate Anthony] Weiner so easily? I wouldn’t care if he and I agreed about every single issue under the sun…the truth is, at the very least, his actions indicate selfishness, and a complete lack of self-control and good judgment, and that is a watered down assessment…and how could “being in a tough spot” in your marriage even begin to justify/explain running down any willing woman of questionable character on the Internet? How does this guy think we should accept that as an excuse? This is complete insanity to me.

Nonplussed in North Carolina

Dear Nonplussed in North Carolina,

Great question, and as you aptly noted, it doesn’t really matter what a politician says he/she will do if you can’t trust him/her. I think that there are many people who believe that a politician can be profoundly dishonest and/or can exercise profoundly poor judgment in his/her personal life, yet be completely honest and exercise only good judgment in his/her professional life. I know that this belief has been around for a long time, but in my opinion, it’s generally an inaccurate and dangerous belief. If someone’s profoundly dishonest and/or exercises profoundly poor judgment in one sphere of life, it’s far safer to expect his/her dishonesty and/or poor judgment to generalize to other spheres of life.

I also think that over the past few decades, many Americans have come to believe in “nonjudgmentalism” as a virtue. Not only do they seem to believe that they have no right to make judgments about others’ behavior (sometimes even others who’ve vowed to behave honorably toward them, e.g. spouses and public servants), but they also seem to believe that they’re somehow better people if they don’t judge. In addition, I think there’s an expectation – that’s conscious for some and subconscious for many – of reciprocal nonjudgmentalism, an expectation that if one doesn’t judge others’ behavior, then his/her behavior won’t be judged. (And it doesn’t help that there’s been an uptick in many forms of bad behavior since the 1960’s, when many Baby Boomers started to eschew the values and virtues espoused by their Greatest-Generation parents, e.g., “We don’t need to stay married, or get married, or stay clean and sober, or live within our means, or … .” Specifically to your question, so many Americans have, sadly, been unfaithful to their own spouses that, unless they’re huge hypocrites, they really can’t condemn the behavior of a guy like Weiner without condemning their own behavior).

In my opinion, however, the belief in nonjudgmentalism as a virtue is another generally inaccurate and dangerous belief. Our nation’s Founding Fathers understood that we’d never be able to (nor would we want to) put enough police officers on our streets to make the primary extrinsic force discouraging bad behavior be the law/government. They understood that instead, the primary extrinsic force discouraging bad behavior, in a healthy society, would be the disdain of one’s fellow citizens. Unfortunately, I believe that in recent decades, our society has become rather unhealthy, morally speaking. Yes, extreme judgments about personal behavior can be unhealthy, too, but in our haste to be nonjudgmental, I believe that we’ve reduced or removed social stigmas (e.g. the infidelity stigma) and absolved people (e.g. cheaters) of shame and guilt which were actually helpful to individuals, families, communities, and the nation.

But perhaps most frightening of all, it seems to me that many Americans, even if they do think critically about behavior, aren’t even confident about what’s right and what’s wrong anymore. It’s sad but understandable. Many millions of American parents are divorced, so in their households, the availability of parents in the home to discuss morals and values with kids has been divided in half. At the same time, morals and values aren’t often being discussed in public schools because teachers are afraid of being sued or fired if nonjudgmentalist parents get upset and accuse them of proselytizing in the classroom. Meanwhile, fewer Americans than ever before are attending church (or synagogue, or …) on a regular basis. So, if they’re not learning about morals and values at home, school, or church, it’s no wonder that many aren’t learning much about them at all.

That’s probably why many Americans these days are also so willing to accept mental “disorders” as excuses for bad behavior. They accept ADHD as an excuse for laziness, cheating, disrespect, and delinquent behavior from kids. Likewise, they accept addiction to drugs and alcohol as excuses for all kinds of bad behavior from adults, as if the continued use of those substances in the face of destructive consequences weren’t always a choice, regardless of how badly anyone craves them. And similarly, they accept “sex addiction” – which doesn’t even exist – as an excuse for the kind of bad behavior that we’ve seen from Weiner and many others.

And finally, I think that the concepts of compassion and forgiveness have gotten somewhat warped for many Americans – even many good-hearted, well-intentioned Americans who do attend church on a regular basis. As I see compassion, it belongs, first and foremost, with those who’ve been harmed (e.g. Weiner’s wife) and/or who might be harmed (e.g. voters) by someone’s bad behavior, not with the offender, but it seems like many Americans have that the other way around. Similarly, as I see forgiveness (of one human being by another – Godly forgiveness is another matter), it’s primarily for the benefit of the one who’s been harmed – so that he/she doesn’t go through life consumed by hateful or vengeful thoughts – not for the benefit of the offender, but again, it seems like many Americans have that turned around. And either way, I don’t believe that forgiveness requires the one who’s been harmed to also give the offender a second (or third, fourth…) chance to harm him/her.

I share your dismay that 8,000,000 New Yorkers would ever even consider settling for a guy like Weiner (or Eliot Spitzer) rather than demanding a person of character in every public office, but I’m confident that you and many other Americans are still talking about morals and values with your children, keeping the focus of compassion where it belongs, voting for people of character, etc., and that gives me hope for the country. Thanks for your excellent question!

Dr. Brian

(“Dear Dr. Brian” is published for public-interest and entertainment purposes only – it does not establish doctor-patient or attorney-client relationships, and it should not be used as a substitute for psychological, legal, or financial advice from a licensed professional in your area.)

Dear Dr. Brian

05/01/2013

Dear Dr. Brian,

Can you discuss this one? 

http://www.philly.com/philly/news/nation_world/Judge_Animal_snuff_films_protected_by_1st_Amendment.html

Thanks!

Appalled Animal Advocate

Dear Appalled Animal Advocate,

The sad, sickening story to which you linked has both important psychological and legal implications. First, the behavior depicted in animal “snuff” films is psychopathic. Finding gratification in the infliction of suffering upon another living thing is sadistic, and it’s profoundly disordered. A distinction must be made, however, between the desire to inflict (or to watch the infliction of) suffering and actually inflicting it. The desire is illness to the extent that it’s involuntary (like a pedophile’s desire to molest children). The actual behavior (like a pedophile’s actual molestation of children), however, is not illness because it’s voluntary in all cases — it’s a conscious, psychopathic choice to gratify oneself by inflicting suffering upon another.

Now, I’m sometimes asked whether and why we should criminalize the intentional infliction of suffering upon animals when the slaughter of animals for food remains legal. The answer is yes, we should criminalize the intentional infliction of suffering upon animals (as at least 48 states have done — such crimes generally fall under state rather than federal jurisdiction), “intentional” being the operative word. When animals are slaughtered responsibly for food, the intent is not to cause or to prolong suffering, and responsible slaughterhouses take measures to minimize animals’ experience and duration of suffering. When, on the other hand, there is an intent to cause suffering, that’s indicative of psychopathy, and undeterred psychopathy virtually always escalates, e.g. mutilations of animals escalate to simple assaults on humans which escalate to sexual and lethal assaults on humans. That’s why we must criminalize the behavior — to deter it and, if necessary, to segregate the perpetrators from the law-abiding public.

So, the makers of animal “snuff” films are psychopathic criminals who belong in cages of their own for sure (and can be put there under the existing laws of almost every state). The question then becomes whether to criminalize even possessing such films, as in the case of child pornography (and here, there is federal jurisdiction because trafficking in such images implicates interstate commerce). Certainly, the same rationales apply — consuming the films essentially makes the consumer an accessory after the fact to the crimes depicted therein, and watching such crimes has high potential to escalate into committing similar (and worse) crimes. At the same time, our nation’s founders wisely enshrined broad freedom of speech in our Constitution with a First Amendment which makes it extremely difficult for our government to prohibit the dissemination of ideas, even ideas that are widely considered vile.

From a legal perspective, I think that a ban on possessing animal “snuff” films could pass constitutional muster, as has the ban on the possessing child pornography, but it may need to be drafted more narrowly to address some potential problems that aren’t as salient in the case of child pornography. For instance, sexual acts performed on or by children under the age of consent are considered criminal acts throughout the civilized world, and both the filming of such acts and the possession of such films are relatively easy to recognize and criminalize. At the same time, it’s highly unlikely that a filmmaker is going to be prosecuted for making a documentary about poverty in Africa, nor is a consumer likely to be prosecuted for possessing it, even if there are some naked children in it.

My only concern about criminalizing the possession of animal “snuff” films in parallel fashion is the (perhaps) greater potential for confusion between depictions of legal and illegal activities. For instance, I think it’d be relatively easy to recognize the films described in the story to which you linked as depictions of crimes, such that their possession would be clearly illegal. At the same time, I wonder whether security-camera footage from a meat-packing plant would be as easy as the aforementioned African documentary to distinguish as a depiction of legal activity, such that its possession would be clearly legal. Don’t get me wrong, as a proud owner of a rescue dog, I’m all for criminalizing the possession of animal “snuff” films. As a legislative consultant, though, I understand the difficulty of drafting legislation that criminalizes possessing depictions of acts performed with intent to cause suffering while permitting possessing depictions of very similar-looking acts performed with no such intent.

And just in case you’re wondering, even if a federal ban on the possession of animal “snuff” films is ultimately upheld, there will still be no practical way to prevent the recreational viewing of depictions of harm to animals that remain legal under that statute, e.g. security-camera footage from a slaughterhouse, despite the potentially-escalating sadism that such viewing would suggest (because it would be practically-impossible to disprove a person’s stated reason for viewing such images, e.g. “I was just trying to learn what goes on in slaughterhouses”). In the end, prioritizing and balancing competing rights is the province of the judiciary, and my guess is that the federal ban on possessing and viewing animal “snuff” films will continue to work its way up through the court system, probably eventually all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. As a lawyer, I know that the slow pace of that process can be frustrating, but I also know that we have to handle both our First Amendment and our animals with care. Thanks for your letter and link.

Dr. Brian

(“Dear Dr. Brian” is published for public-interest and entertainment purposes only – it does not establish doctor-patient or attorney-client relationships, and it should not be used as a substitute for psychological, legal, or financial advice from a licensed professional in your area.)

Q & A about the Boston Marathon bombings

04/17/2013

UPDATE 4/20/13 3:30 a.m.: Images of two suspects, now known to be young adult brothers, children of Chechen refugees, who apparently had been residing and studying in the U.S. for a period of years and had become radicalized jihadists during that time, were publicized on Thursday. The publication of those images (surveillance-camera footage and still photos taken at the Boston Marathon, the site of Monday’s bombings) apparently disrupted the suspects’ plans to commit further acts of terrorism using a stockpile of explosives, IED’s, and guns in their possession (which is probably why they hadn’t yet claimed responsibility for the Marathon bombings — they weren’t finished). They then apparently started making rash decisions, including perpetrating a carjacking robbery and murdering a police officer (when perpetrators’ plans are disrupted, and they’re forced to start making decisions in real time, the upside is that they usually make some stupid ones that ultimately lead to their captures or deaths, but the downside is that their behavior in the meantime can become increasingly desperate and unpredictable). When cops spotted the stolen car, a chase ensued, during which the suspects threw explosives at the cops, injuring several, one seriously. The chase ended in a firefight in a suburban Boston residential neighborhood. One suspect died in that firefight, having sustained multiple gunshot wounds but having also apparently detonated some kind of suicide belt or vest. The other suspect apparently was also wounded in that firefight but still managed to flee that scene on foot. After a virtual lock-down of Boston and a massive manhunt, that suspect was located — again with vigilant civilian aid — hiding in a boat in a residential backyard on Friday. After another firefight, that suspect was taken into custody and transported to a hospital in “serious” condition (I theorize that he may have run out of ammunition in that last firefight, or he would’ve committed suicide). He’ll now be federally charged with multiple capital murders and face the death penalty upon conviction. Despite this outcome, I still worry that we’ve only seen the tip of a larger iceberg this week — that there are more of these radicalized jihadist terrorist individuals and small groups operating secretly and relatively autonomously in the U.S. These two Boston Marathon bombers may even have had co-conspirators who are still out there. In the weeks ahead, we’ll really need to reassess as a nation whether our governmental resources are focused enough on maintaining our national security or whether they’ve been too widely dispersed among too many competing priorities, many of which are non-existentially-essential to our nation (apparently, the FBI was tipped off in 2010 that one of these Marathon bombing suspects might’ve been a jihadist but concluded otherwise and stopped monitoring him; the suspects’ mother reportedly has committed crimes here but hasn’t been deported, etc. — not that our law enforcement agencies and personnel haven’t done great work, but I think we need to be allocating more resources to them, which, in this economy, means diverting resources from less-essential functions), which of our nation’s immigration policies (e.g. the refugee visas that these terrorists and their parents apparently were granted, the student visas that other known terrorists have been granted, our relatively porous borders and ports, etc.) are costing us more than they’re benefiting us in terms of our security (and it’s our security that I care about and that I think should be the number-one priority of government both in budgeting its resources and in regulating immigration — I wouldn’t be helping out families who’ve had hard times in other places like Chechnya if that means potentially putting American families at risk)… . For the moment, though, excellent work by law enforcement, and by the public, in apprehending these two mass murderers! Thoughts and prayers of course remain with the victims (and their families) whose lives and limbs nevertheless remain lost. 

Here are some of the most common questions that I’ve received about the Boston Marathon bombings along with the best answers that I can briefly give with the information available to me at this time:

Is/are the perpetrator(s) foreign or domestic?

Too early to tell. The bombs, including lots of shrapnel designed to inflict maximum tissue damage within a wide radius, resemble the bombs typically used by Hamas in Israel, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and Al Qaeda elsewhere in the Middle East and Africa, however, “recipes” for such bombs have been widely circulated. This is pure speculation, but I’m inclined to suspect an individual – perhaps an American, perhaps an immigrant or foreign student who had been in this country for a while – with jihadist motivations and some technical expertise/experience, but not necessarily with direct instruction or support from a broader jihadist organization. We’ve seen people like this at Ft. Hood, Times Square, and elsewhere apparently trying to make jihadist “heroes” of themselves by perpetrating solo terrorist attacks on Americans. If that’s the case here, I wonder whether some kind of a note, video, etc. will surface, perhaps mailed just prior to the bombings, identifying the perpetrator (so he’d still get his “hero” status in the event that he – and I’m using “he” because it’d almost certainly be a male – was killed in the explosions or by law enforcement at the scene).

Will there be copycat attacks in the days ahead?

There may already have been at least one subsequent incident inspired by the Boston Marathon bombings – a letter containing the toxin Ricin mailed to a U.S. senator (which was intercepted before delivery). There will be certainly be copycat threats if not actual copycats, and EVERY one of them should be treated as 100% serious. The type of person who’d think that it’d make him look “tough” to threaten a copycat of the Boston Marathon bombings is the type of cowardly loser who just might act on that threat (most probably wouldn’t, but we don’t need to risk it – the threat alone opens the door for us to take control of that individual).

Is it correct to say that a person who would do something like this must be “sick”?

No. Mental illness is only explanatory of violence to the extent that it prevents a person from making decisions about behavior. This bomber(s) may or may not be mentally stable, but he/they appear(s) to have made many decisions about behavior culminating in the bombings.

If it’s jihadist terrorism, what role does religion play?

Generally, not much. I don’t believe that jihadists, in general, are that much more religiously-motivated to do the things that they do in life than Christians, Jews, Hindus, etc. are. I do believe, however, that if a restless, disaffected, direction-less, “disenfranchised,” angry young man were looking for a reason to lash out at an institution or a nation, and if someone with ostensible moral authority told the young man that it’s not only morally permissible but morally imperative to do so, then there’s a dangerous chance that the young man might in fact lash out. This would not, however, absolve the young man of the obligation to use his intellect to discern right from wrong independently of what anyone, religious or secular, told him, so he’d of course remain fully responsible for his actions.

What explains it then?

Keep in mind, if this “made sense” to you, you’d likely have some serious problems. This transcends psychology, but to use psychological terms, it illustrates the malignant, sociopathic narcissism at the core of the perpetrators of terrorism, the sense of entitlement to take their frustration, rage, jealousy, etc. out on innocent others. Everyone has to decide what to call the conscious decision to act on those feelings in a destructive way. I call it evil, and it absolutely does exist.

Why would the perpetrator(s) target innocent, unarmed people, including women and children?

Probably two reasons: 1) The bomber(s) probably wanted to inflict the maximum amount of pain and suffering and to spread it around as widely as possible, and 2) Cowardice – these perpetrators typically are cowards; they don’t want to fight equals face-to-face; they want to hide in shadows and ambush people; they want to inflict pain but don’t want to feel pain; they typically run away or commit suicide either before or when equals arrive on the scene.

Is this sort of thing the “new reality” in America?

Honestly, that’s possible. Since 9/11/2001, our nation’s counter-terrorism efforts have been incredibly successful, but infinite, perfect preventive success is an unrealistic expectation. I’ve long said that we would eventually face the kinds of “street-level” terrorism that our friends in Israel have faced for decades. The more successful we’ve become at detecting and preventing large-scale or “wholesale” terrorist operations, the more we’ve limited terrorists to smaller-scale or “retail” operations like suicide bombs, car bombs, backpack bombs, trashcan bombs, etc. That’s good in terms of limiting total casualties per incident, but psychologically, the chance of trashcans exploding on their city streets can actually be more chronically anxiety-provoking for many people than the chance of the buildings in which they work falling down.

How might we begin working to prevent this sort of thing from becoming the “new reality” in America?

Our first thoughts and efforts should be devoted to the victims. Next, we need to figure out exactly what happened here and bring the perpetrator(s) to justice. Then, we need to ask ourselves what are the most important functions of our government? Is our government protecting us as well as it could be if it weren’t simultaneously trying to do a million non-existentially-essential (to the nation) things, from co-opting our healthcare all the way down to regulating the size of our soft-drink cups? Which government services and safety nets would we be willing to do without in order for our government to focus more of its resources on our security infrastructure? Do we want people, some of whom wish us harm (of course we don’t know yet who’s responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings – it could be an American – but I’ve been saying for years that we need to learn from the Israelis how to better balance our welcoming aspirations against deadly new realities on our streets) to continue to literally be able to walk across our borders into this country anytime? (And we should NOT even CONSIDER passing immigration reform legislation until we complete the investigation into these bombings, which may or may not reveal security risks that must be addressed as part of any laws governing who enters our country, who stays in our country if they’re already here, etc.) But again, victims first, justice second, policy third.

How should parents talk about this with children?

Even kids who weren’t directly affected can still be affected by coverage of the event in that it can shake their sense of the security, safety, and predictability of their world. Here are some general thoughts and suggestions for parents: 1) Listen to your children – they may not have paid as much attention to the coverage or be as anxious about it as you think (and you can minimize their further exposure to it by keeping it off of televisions, radios, and computers in the children’s presence). 2) Validate feelings and fears that they do have, e.g. by acknowledging, at age-appropriate levels of course, that there are some bad people in the world who do some bad things sometimes, and that it’s sad and scary for all of us. 3) Reassure them that they’re very safe and secure with you, that the majority of people in their world are good, and that we can work together to make the number of bad things that happen even smaller, e.g. if we take reasonable precautions, stick together, stay alert, report suspicious behavior, support and assist our first responders, etc. 4) Refocus them off of the gruesome details of the event and toward the good in people that was exhibited in the context of it, e.g. pointing out the heroism of the first responders, of the survivors who looked out for one another as that terrible event happened. 5) Act – e.g., maybe let them go with you to the blood bank if you donate blood, do something to show appreciation to your local first responders, donate to the victims’ relief fund, make a card to send to a hospitalized survivor, etc. – to help demonstrate that the “good guys” are back in control and thereby hopefully help to reactivate some of that resilient optimism that many kids characteristically exhibit. And if those measures don’t seem to be adequate for your child(ren) – or for yourself, for that matter – then seek consultation with a mental health professional near you; that’s what they’re there for.

Are public memorial services helpful?

Generally, yes. Memorial services will be helpful in mustering social support and reassuring that the “good guys” are back in control. (Obviously any event to which you take your kids or which you allow your kids to watch needs to be age-appropriate – an infant probably isn’t going to benefit much from attending a memorial service, for example.)

Any pet peeves about the coverage of cases like this?

Yes, I hate it when people say that the perpetrator(s) have to be “sick” (see the question and my answer on that specific topic above). In addition, while I realize that they don’t mean to, when people go in front of TV cameras and say that “God” saved their loved ones from harm, they’re implying that God didn’t mind that other people’s loved ones got killed/maimed. I don’t believe that God picks and chooses who gets killed, who gets maimed, and who gets spared like that, and I always feel bad for the victims’ loved ones when the media shows survivors’ loved ones saying it.

Is there any good to point out in this case?

Yes, the heroism of the first responders rushing to the scene without hesitation exemplified what “Patriots’ Day” (which was also Monday) in Boston is all about. There are also multiple stories of inspiring compassion and medical skill associated with the aftermath of these bombings.

Do first responders get traumatized like victims do?

My late father was a first responder (cop) at the beginning of his career, and my brother is a first responder (firefighter/EMT) now. First responders often see terrible suffering and are forced by the exigency of the circumstances to prioritize the needs of victims over their own needs, including their psychological needs. Not surprisingly, once removed from the emergent situation, they begin to process what they’ve seen, experienced, and felt, and that often involves experiencing unpleasant memories and emotions, which can preoccupy their thoughts, interrupt their sleep, and cause mood disturbances like depression and anxiety. It also often involves self-doubt, questioning whether they did enough of the right things, and while the guilt that they feel is quite often unjustified, it can be difficult for someone in a highly emotional state to reflect and think clearly and logically enough about all of the relevant factors to reach that conclusion quickly and comfortably. What begins as an “acute stress reaction,” if allowed to go unresolved long enough, can turn into post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). So, like disaster victims, it’s important that disaster responders have someone with whom they CAN, if they wish (there’s no one-size-fits-all here), debrief and discuss – and in the process, organize, think through, and gain realistic perspective on – their memories, feelings, and thoughts about what they saw, did, and didn’t do on the scene of a disaster. Like some victims, some responders don’t feel that need, and some can do those things just fine with colleagues, friends, and family, but some don’t have that kind of social support system, and some who do have it nonetheless need professional assistance resolving persistent traumatic memories, feelings, and thoughts. It’s tough to know exactly which responders will fall into which category until some time has passed, so it makes sense, as the U.S. military has found, to have a professionally-facilitated “triage” protocol in place for anyone returning from a traumatic deployment, which basically involves mental-health professionals being available to see how functional people seem and to provide some reassuring/validating psycho-education about the normalcy of some negative post-traumatic emotions, the benefits of social support, etc., and what to do if one’s experience seems abnormally debilitating, abnormally protracted, etc. For some, that might be the only opportunity for professional involvement that they have or need, while others might need/want ongoing professional involvement for a while, and if anyone who initially thought he/she was in the first category comes to realize he/she is actually in the second category, they at least have someone they can contact either for direct assistance or a referral. It’s important to keep in mind that not everyone who goes through something traumatic needs to go straight to therapy. For many people, there’s actually a downside to continually rehashing their traumas.

Why would God allow something so horrific to happen?

This question is often posed to psychologists as they help people through grief, but it’s a question that psychology is ill-equipped to handle. If you’ve watched or listened to me in the media or read my blog, you know that I don’t publicly venture into a spiritual zone very often, but in this instance, I’ll give it a try. In case it’s helpful to anyone, here’s how I, personally, make sense of tragedy: It makes sense to me that God might, for example, help the driver of a bus full of children to think clearly enough during a bridge collapse to bring the bus to rest safely, but terrible things still sometimes happen in life, and when they do, I don’t think it means that God didn’t care about the people affected. What makes more sense to me is that there’s so much more to our existence after this life that when and how this life ends is not as important in the grand scheme of things as it seems to us who know only this life. I’m not minimizing the profound value and significance of our lives on this Earth. I’m simply asking, what if the magnitude of the loss of a loved one is as profound as it is to us because this life is all we know? What if the grief that we feel seems like it will last forever because we judge time relative to the length of this life rather than to eternity? What if, to our lost loved ones, our arrival where they are will seem almost simultaneous with theirs, as if we come through the door right behind them even though it’s been decades in Earth time? I can’t promise you that’s how it works, but that’s what I believe, and it helps me. Will it help anyone else in the wake of such profound loss? I hope so.

(I’ll try to update these questions and answers here, and/or on TV, as developments warrant/allow.)


Life Imitates Art at the EEOC

02/21/2013

If you’ve never seen the movie “Idiocracy,” which depicts a futuristic American government devoid of reason, justice, and personal responsibility, this might be a good weekend to rent and watch it in view of the “guidance” recently foisted upon American employers by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). If the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. “Obamacare”), whereby employers are made responsible for their employees’ health, weren’t enough for one to conclude that our nation had fallen through Lewis Carroll’s looking glass (into “Wonderland”), try demonizing employers who decline to employ convicted felons.

Unless you’re a lawyer who pays attention to the EEOC’s guidance updates, or a psychological expert in employment cases, or a management consultant and lecturer at a business school, or a Wall Street Journal reader who happened to catch James Bovard’s excellent article on it last week (I’m all of the above), you may not have been aware of this, but you should be, if you’re interested in optimizing the quality of the American workforce with which we’re to compete against China for global economic dominance, and especially if you’re an American employer:  The EEOC is actually threatening to sue employers who use felony convictions as exclusionary hiring criteria. If you’ve seen “Idiocracy,” this sounds like something straight out of that movie, I know, but sadly, it’s reality.

The legal premise underlying the EEOC’s revised guidance is not new, but the length to which President Obama’s hand-picked EEOC leadership has now stretched this premise is both new and further illuminative of what I see as the President’s disdain for the very individuals who’ve forged and fueled the engine of American productivity. The premise is “disparate-impact” discrimination, and it refers to indirect forms of discrimination whereby exclusionary hiring criteria, even if applied to all job applicants equally, impact members of protected classes disproportionately to other applicants, intentionally or unintentionally.

In this case, the EEOC argues that excluding convicted felons from consideration for employment has a disparate discriminatory impact on black and Hispanic applicants who, statistically, have higher frequencies of felony conviction than members of other racial groups. The revised EEOC guidelines require an employer who uses a felony conviction as an exclusionary hiring criterion to either be able to prove how that specific felony rendered that specific felon unqualified for that specific job or to face a disparate-impact discrimination lawsuit.

As an attorney who has worked on both high- and low-profile employment cases, please first allow me to illustrate why disparate-impact discrimination should not be viewed as a universally-bad thing. Consider the specific felony of insider stock trading. Among convicted insider-trading felons, white males are represented disproportionately to members of other racial groups. Thus, if an insider-trading conviction is used as an exclusionary hiring criterion on Wall Street, it’ll have a disparate impact on white male applicants, which is precisely as it should be. If white males are committing the crime disproportionately, then it stands to reason that they bear the consequences thereof disproportionately.

To demand that Wall Street employers eliminate insider-trading convictions from their pre-employment inquiries to prevent a disparate impact on white applicants would be insane, but then I’m getting ahead of myself, swapping my lawyer hat for my shrink hat prematurely. Hiring an insider-trading convict to work in a Wall Street firm would likely be deemed negligent, and the employer would likely be held liable for damages, were that convict to use information obtained in the course of his or her employment to make and/or to facilitate trades that were detrimental to clients of the firm or even to the investing public.

Now, I know what you’re thinking – there’s a clear nexus between having committed a prior felony involving insider trading and the likelihood of committing a similar felony if given another opportunity to do so – even the EEOC would acknowledge that, right? Don’t be so sure, but regardless, as a psychologist who has served as an expert in employment cases, please allow me to state the following, definitively and unequivocally, in my professional opinion:  There is an inherent nexus between one’s character and one’s likely behavior on any job, anywhere, anytime, and the commission of a single felony, in and of itself, is a reasonable basis for the conclusion that an applicant is characterologically unfit for employment. (And if you know an employer who ever has to defend against a disparate-impact discrimination claim filed by a convicted felon, I’ll be happy to repeat that in court on the employer’s behalf!)

But what if that Wall Street applicant’s prior conviction were for an attempted rape 20 years ago? One could argue that it doesn’t have anything directly to do with trading stocks today, but that wouldn’t make the applicant any more qualified for a Wall Street job than for a job in a women’s fitness center, and here’s why:   The kind of individual who would ever have attempted a rape is the kind of individual whom I’d never recommend that one ever trust to behave lawfully around one’s clients or employees, let alone one’s cash, property, or data. And just imagine the negligence liability, not to mention the moral culpability, if a Wall Street firm hired that applicant, who then went on to rape a client or fellow employee of the firm.

While the United States Constitution expressly enshrines within its First Amendment the freedom of social and political association, it also expressly recognizes within its Commerce Clause the power of the federal government to regulate commercial association. If our economy is analogized to a national “Monopoly” game, then the Founders essentially reserved the right for us, as a nation, to make certain “rules of the game” that those who wish to participate must follow. At the same time, our Founders and Supreme Court, historically, have recognized that such rules operate as abridgments of the private-property rights that are foundational to both our economy and our civil liberties.

Such abridgments then, have traditionally required both the presence of a compelling higher priority (of which there are few, relative to private-property rights) and the absence of an alternative way to achieve it. Ameliorating the unemployment of felons is by no means a compelling national priority, disparate impact or not, and to the extent that anyone (the Obama EEOC at least) cares about it, there are alternative ways to achieve it. How about ascribing personal responsibility to job applicants of all races not to commit felonies in the first place? A felony-free record is not a high bar to impose upon job applicants of any race. How many felonies have you committed? Zero? Me too, and it hasn’t been difficult.

In addition, not all employers use felony convictions as exclusionary hiring criteria. Some employers are willing to hire, and routinely do hire, convicted felons – voluntarily. Bovard aptly noted, however, a possible unintended consequence of the EEOC’s revised guidelines that I, as a management lecturer and consultant, concur is likely. The revised guidelines may actually increase unemployment among black and Hispanic Americans as some employers may make stereotypical assumptions about some applicants which could’ve been dispelled by the very criminal background inquiries which the employers may now be afraid to make.

Since 2008, in my WorldNetDaily columns and elsewhere, I’ve been warning that President Obama, I believe, sees the United States as an unfair, unjust, and oppressive nation in need of fundamental “change” far beyond that which he promised in two Presidential campaigns and that, like all presidents, he’d appoint government officials who share his views. For corroboration, one need look no farther than the EEOC’s fundamentally un-American new mandate that productive citizens expose their consumers, employees, and assets to individuals whose disrespect for our way of life has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt. As Ayn Rand more famously warned over 50 years ago, Atlas has shrugged, up is down, down is up, “A ≠ A.”


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