Archive: May 2010

B.O. phobia and death by heartbreak 5/26/10

You’ve heard me talk about Body Dysmorphic Disorder, in which a person’s perception of his/her body as malformed or misshapen has little or no basis in objective reality.  Michael Jackson comes to mind.  Well, here’s a new twist on the same basic idea:  Olfactory Reference Syndrome, in which a person’s perception of his/her body as malodorous has little or no basis in objective reality.  In other words, a small percentage of people apparently think they stink when they really don’t, kind of like a “B.O. phobia.”  Recent research on the condition estimates that it could affect up to two percent of the population, but like many psychological disorders, the actual prevalence gets tough to pin down when you consider that it’s defined as including people’s fears that their breath is bad.  While it’s understandable that many may find this new “disorder” somewhat humorous, the research did expose a serious side to it in that a high percentage of participants in a small study of sufferers reported feeling so self-conscious about their scents that they had actually contemplated suicide.  Antidepressants are being investigated as potential treatments for the condition.  B.O. phobia, who knew?  Now, wonder what diagnostic label we apply to people who actually do stink but think they don’t.  Olfactory Obliviousness Syndrome?

Can a person die of a “broken heart”?  Some people are asking about the death of the late actress Britney Murphy’s 39-year-old husband this week.  An autopsy reportedly has been performed, but no official cause of death is yet known.  A heart attack has been leaked as the cause, which would be relatively unusual in a man that young, prompting speculation that an accidental or perhaps even intentional drug overdose must’ve been involved, however there have also been reports that he in fact had a heart condition for which he was slated to have surgery later this year.  Probably the most interesting question I’ve seen is whether it’s possible, as his mother reportedly said, that he died of a “broken heart” following the death of his wife approximately six months ago.  I think what can happen is that people can sometimes lose the will to go on living after losing a loved one, which can contribute to hastening the progression of preexisting health problems, lack of attention to health problems, and unhealthy behaviors.  We see it more often in elderly people who were relatively healthy and not actively suicidal but then deteriorate and pass away within a year or two after their long-term spouses pass away.  In the case of Murphy’s husband, a much younger individual, we may never know what role his grief may have played in the condition and/or behavior that was the proximate cause of his death, but I think it could’ve been one factor.

Evidentiary issues in the Peterson case 5/24/10

Former Illinois police officer Drew Peterson is scheduled to go on trial in June for the murder of his third wife.  She was found dead in her bathtub several years ago, toward the end of their divorce proceedings, and initially, her death was ruled accidental by the coroner who examined the body.  Since then, Peterson’s subsequent wife, his fourth, has gone missing (Peterson is suspected in that case as well), and the body of the third wife has been exhumed for second and third opinions that conflict with the initial coroner’s opinion.  Apparently, the deceased woman had written and told people that her soon-to-be ex-husband had beaten her throughout their marriage and that she was still afraid of him even as they were divorcing.  That’s evidentiary issue #1 — whether the judge will allow the jury to hear and see that sort of evidence.  In making such decisions, judges have to weigh the probative versus the prejudicial value of the evidence.  In other words, judges have to decide whether the evidence is more likely to prove that the defendant committed the crime charged or more likely to prejudice the jury against the defendant for potentially-unrelated reasons.  Evidentiary issue #2 is whether the currently-missing fourth wife’s pastor will be allowed to testify about an alleged confession to him that she lied to police when she supported Peterson’s alibi for the night the third wife was found dead in the bathtub.  That’s a thorny issue because it involves “hearsay.”  There’s a good reason why we generally don’t allow hearsay to be admitted as evidence in criminal trials — the Constitution.  Defendants have the Constitutional right to confront their accusers — in other words, to have anyone who accuses the defendant of committing a crime do so on the witness stand where the defendant (usually through defense counsel) can question their testimony.  In this case, the missing fourth wife isn’t available to testify in person about what, if anything, she did to help her husband cover up the possible murder of his previous wife.  So, if the pastor testifies about what she allegedly told him, that’s hearsay (and before the hearsay issue even is raised, the judge will have to consider whether the pastor should be allowed to violate the privilege that normally would prevent him from disclosing anything that she told him in the context of a clergy-penitent conversation — ironically, her husband, the defendant, may try to assert that privilege on her behalf — that’s evidentiary issue #3).  Sometimes, however, hearsay is allowed, if it fits one of the limited exceptions that have been carved into the law over the years.  Interestingly, one of those exceptions is a situation in which the defendant did something to make the original speaker unavailable to testify.  To invoke that exception, the prosecution would have to argue that the defendant rendered his current wife missing and therefore unavailable to testify, but keep in mind, that hasn’t been proven — he hasn’t even been charged in connection with her disappearance.  Another hearsay exception involves statements that are against the best interests of the persons making those statements.  For example, a prosecutor could argue that the statement allegedly made to the pastor by the currently-missing fourth wife is reliable and should be admitted because she essentially admitted to a crime, helping her husband obstruct justice, which she’s unlikely to have admitted unless it was the truth.  Evidentiary issue #4 is the reliability of autopsies performed years after a body has been buried relative to the reliability of an autopsy performed contemporaneously to the death.  Expect a duel between experts similar to what you saw in “O.J. trial #1,” which will interest me, someone who testifies as an expert witness, but might put you (hopefully not jurors!) to sleep.  Stay tuned, the Drew Peterson case is just revving up!

Catching up after New York 5/23/10

After a week in New York City, I have some catching up to do, so here goes

I was so busy getting ready for my New York trip that I didn’t get a chance to do anything but Tweet about my HLN appearance at the end of the previous week.  We talked about how the mother of a murdered teen in California wanted to talk to the murderer before his sentencing.  Many viewers and even crew members behind the scenes found it difficult to understand why the mom would even want to talk to the murderer, and I explained that different people process tragic events like this in different ways, so if she found it helpful, we shouldn’t really judge.  This was a horrible serial murder case in which the murderer — surprise, surprise — had been convicted of a prior sex offense and was nevertheless out on the streets to attack and kill two teenage girls.  That’s two that we know of anyway.  He wouldn’t tell the mother whether there are other victims.  I’ll bet there are, and the fact that he won’t tell tells me that the “remorse” he expressed to the mother was feigned.  He also told her that he was overcome at times by an irresistible impulse to attack girls.  Right, and knowing that about himself, did he show up at a mental hospital saying they needed to lock him up so he didn’t hurt anyone?  No.  Did he show up at a police station saying they needed to lock him up so he didn’t hurt someone?  No.  Did he do anything to restrain/prevent himself from being able to attack girls?  No.  Irresistible impulse?  Right.  Also on that show, we talked about a guy who was so obsessive about his lawn that he shot and killed a man whose dog urinated on the lawn.  It’s sad on multiple levels.  The victim was a father, and the shooter by all accounts served the country honorably as a career soldier.  I was asked whether the shooting sounded like the product of combat stress or “PTSD.”  Having examined numerous veterans with PTSD, I don’t think so.  This sounds more to me like a severely obsessive-compulsive guy who just may have been able to “fly under the radar” while in the military because of the highly-regimented, highly-structured conditions.  That wouldn’t excuse anything, of course — it would explain how he got so perfectionistic about his lawn, but it wouldn’t change the fact that he chose to shoot someone over it.

Then last week, the United States Supreme Court made a couple of important decisions:  1) People who were under the age of 18 when they committed crimes can no longer be sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole, except if the crime is first-degree murder.  And 2) People who are found to be “sexually violent predators” (SVP’s — that’s one of the types of expert assessment that I do) can be involuntarily and indefinitely committed to “treatment” facilities after serving their prison sentences, even if there’s no “treatment” that’s likely to be effective.

As always, some new psych-related studies were released while I was in New York:  1) A new study found that there’s a big difference in the quality of daycare centers when it comes to stimulating pre-school-age children’s minds and that the higher-quality daycare centers tend to turn out kids who do better in school, with the differences still observable in the high-school years.  I still think that nobody’s likely to work harder to prepare a child for school and life in general than a caring, committed, concerned parent.  2) A new study suggested that there may be a causal link between ADHD and exposure to certain pesticides during childhood.  Hmmm, maybe the better daycare centers in the previous study used better pest-control.  Seriously though, I’m not buying this one, especially since I probably wouldn’t agree that most of the kids studied really have ADHD in the first place.  3) According to yet another new study, there’s now something called “new-dad” depression to go along with post-partum depression.  Not buying this one either, at least in the sense that it’s a real “new” disorder — some people experience depression around all kinds of major emotionally-charged life changes; it’s called “adjustment disorder,” and I don’t think we need a separate label for everything that people have hard times adjusting to.  And 4) In a final new study out last week, believe it or not, it appears that autism cannot be cured with a particular “autism diet.”  Surprise, surprise.

As usual, athletes and entertainers proved points that I’ve made many times:  1) Another pro athlete, Lawrence Taylor, is in trouble for alleged idiotic sexual behavior with an underage girl.  2) Another “reality” TV star is accused of being involved in a murder, this time one that thankfully wasn’t carried out but was stopped at the solicitation stage — “Calorie Commando” chef Juan Cruz allegedly hired a hit-man to kill his wife (and reportedly will claim that it was to be a “mercy killing” because — get this — she supposedly was suicidally depressed because she couldn’t get pregnant with his child.  Right.).  And 3)  Former Duchess of York and, more recently, weight-loss spokesperson Sarah Ferguson was caught on tape agreeing to accept money in exchange for putting a phony businessman in touch with her former prince husband — she’s apologizing, claiming money troubles — apparently she at least knows a thing or two about losing money — clouded her judgment.  Right.

People in the media continued to discuss some stories with psych angles that had been around for a while:  1) The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico continued to lead most newscasts.  Psychologically speaking, I think that the oil company, BP, has done a terrible public-relations job.  Research on crisis communication shows that in a very short period of time following a corporate crisis, the public labels the corporation either a “victim” or a “villain” and that, once one label or the other is applied, it’s very hard for the company to change it.  I’d say BP has been labeled a “villain” in this case, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.  2) People continued to discuss the Georgia teacher who was caught on tape beating the tar out of one of her students.  I’ll bet two things on that one:  that this wasn’t the first time the teacher employed violence as a conflict-resolution strategy, and that the kid’s parents have actually probably abused him worse by depriving him of appropriate discipline at home.  And 3) People continued to discuss an outrageous web video of a little girls’ dance classed dressed up like a college dance team and performing a sexually-suggestive routine to an “adult-themed” hip-hop song, which just proved what I’ve been saying for years — that too many mothers can’t wait to be “Sex and the City” gal-pals with their daughters, so they’re treating the daughters like little sexually-active adults while the girls are still just children.  Job 1 is to be a parent, not a friend.  Not too long ago, I evaluated a guy (of the type that the Supreme Court recently ruled could be held indefinitely as a sexually-violent predator) who wouldn’t hesitate to use that video to try to identify and make contact with a girl or girls featured in it, so these parents need to wise up fast.

Speaking of parenting, the parenting skills of one Florida mother were roundly criticized while I was in New York.  Her five-year-old son was playing with matches, and she wanted to teach him a lesson, so she asked a couple of police officers to pretend to arrest him, which they did.  One bystander, an adult woman, said she was “traumatized” just by watching the officers place the boy in cuffs.  Believe it or not, based on what I’ve been told about this incident up to now, it doesn’t sound to me like it was really that big a deal.  I mean, the kid could burn the family house down and kill people, himself included, if he sets a fire with matches.  Having the cops put a little fear into him seems preferable to me to having the mom beat the tar out of the kid like that Georgia teacher did, but to listen to the bystander, you’d think that’s what happened.  (Yes, I know those weren’t the only two options available to the mom, but still.)

And finally, I was on HLN live from New York last week, and one of the cases that I discussed was the case of a Texas high school student who apparently was recruited to assist some human traffickers from Mexico in smuggling illegal aliens into the United States and was murdered on her first trip into Mexico with the traffickers, who were also murdered.  The case underscored multiple points I’ve made, including the need for parents, once again, to know where their kids are and what they’re doing, and especially the need for us as a nation to know who is coming into this country and what they’re here for.  Teens often fail to estimate risk accurately because they’re tending to be sensation-seeking at a time when they’re tending to think rather short-term, and sadly, there are people coming into this country to recruit young people for activities even more dangerous than smuggling illegal aliens across the border, things like bombings.

Love is in the air 5/13/10

It must be spring, because love is in the psych news if not in the air.  First up, a new study out of Europe suggests that being “cougars” (having significant others who are much younger) might shorten women’s lifespans.  The findings are based on an analysis of demographic data on two million Danish women, in which it was observed that women whose significant others were significantly younger (at least seven years) tended to die younger than women whose significant others were older or close to their same ages.  For men, on the other hand, having significantly-younger significant others correlated with extended lifespans relative to men whose significant others were older or close to their same ages.

There’s also some interesting new research on why some people cheat on their relationship partners while others don’t.  Some of that research focused on whether there’s actually a “cheating” gene, and so far, it looks like there’s not.  Some people seem to be genetically “hard-wired” to be less capable/comfortable than others when it comes to forming and maintaining deep and lasting relationship bonds, but that doesn’t mean that they’d necessarily cheat.  It just means that people with a certain gene variant might become uncomfortable and get out of relationships in which a more genetically/dispositionally-comfortable person might otherwise have stayed.  Related research focused on gender differences in the perception of threats to their relationships and found that women may tend to pick up on potential threats sooner than men do, i.e. men may be more oblivious to developing threats and problems.  Both men and women, however, seem to be able to increase their threat-sensitivity as well as the strengths of their relationship bonds when they focus on how their committed partners and relationships enhance their lives.  Other related research found that couples who engaged in challenging activities together, in which they overcame obstacles as a team, tended to experience bond-strengthening effects.

And on a disgustingly-related note, if you thought the “hooking-up” study that I wrote about yesterday was evidence of some cultural decay, that was nothing compared to this.   There’s actually an online dating service exclusively for married people who want to have affairs.  The founder of it was on Hannity last night, and my friend and fellow commentator Jedediah Bila (she wrote a great profile of me last year — just Google her name and mine if you want to find it) did a great job of exposing what a creep this guy is.  He kept telling Sean and Jedediah how having an affair is supposedly a legitimate alternative to either working on or ending one’s marriage if one is unhappy in that marriage.  Interestingly, the dude supposedly is happily married himself.  Hmmm, wonder how confident his wife could sensibly be in his fidelity, and wonder how he’d like it if he went to work and found her profile on his web site!  I generally hate to see anyone be cheated on, but in this case, I’d have to say it served him right.

[No love in this update, but while I’m here, three more arrests have been made in the connection with the attempted Times Square bombing.  That’s good news to me, especially because I’m headed there next week and would prefer anyone who may want to take another shot at it to be behind bars.  Unfortunately however, I still think there are more, probably quite a few more, people who were involved in the conspiracy and remain at large.]

Study, study 5/12/10

For the college readers who are taking breaks from final exam studies to surf the web, here are a couple of psych studies that might be of interest:

A new study of sexual behavior among college students found that “hooking up” (getting together for brief, casual, often alcohol-influenced, sexual encounters) has substantially replaced sex in the context of actual “dating” relationships.  Paradoxically, majorities of both male and female college students actually lament that “hooking up” has become the norm and say they’d prefer more traditional dating relationships.  I think that there are reflections of some cultural decay (general decline in moral considerations, focus on instant gratification, objectification of people, etc.) in these findings, along with some negative long-term implications (reminiscent of the rampantly-divorced 60’s generation) for this generation’s lasting-relationship formation/maintenance skills as well as its physical health (STD proliferation), i.e. that “free love” can come at a cost

And just a couple of days after Mother’s Day, the results of another new study suggest that many adults actually do experience a reduction in stress levels when they call their mom’s on the phone during stressful times.  I guess it probably depends somewhat on the nature of your relationship with your mother, but if it’s good, then this could be another reason it’d be “better-late-than-never” to phone home if you forgot to do it on Sunday or just another reason not to wait until the next birthday or holiday to call again.

2 familiar tragedies 5/12/10

There’s been a tragic redux of the Robert Manwill case that I covered extensively with Jane Velez-Mitchell last year:  little boy disappears, mother and stepfather say they have no idea where he went, boy’s found dead, turns out they did it (allegedly, or one did it and the other covered it up), parental/step-parental history of violence… .

There’s also been another hacking murder/suicide at a Chinese elementary school, this time an adult male with a meat cleaver killing several students and staff members at a kindergarten before killing himself.  Surprise, surprise, the man’s family said he’s been going crazy for a while and no one did anything about it.  But as I said when three incidents just like this happened in the past couple of weeks, there’s clearly a “copycat” phenomenon in play.  Apparently, disturbed and disaffected males in China have seen that attacking schoolchildren is a way to shock the nation into paying attention to their real or imagined troubles.  See, I told you so (oops, I said I wasn’t going to say that again for a while, sorry).  Chinese authorities need to realize that the copycat thing is in play and secure these schools, at least until these incidents fade from the public consciousness, and like here, they probably also need to start doing more, sooner, when people show propensities toward violence for any reason or combination of reasons.

See, I told you so 5/12/10

Remember what I’ve said about food “allergies,” about mothers who demand that the entire student bodies and staffs at their children’s schools be prohibited from bringing Snickers bars to school for lunch because their “special” children might go into anaphylactic shock at the mere sight of a peanut?  Well, new research out of UCLA looking at tons of these food “allergy” cases over a long period of time has concluded…just guess what it concluded…that upwards of 50% (and I’ll still bet it’s more than that) of them are BOGUS!  It appears, surprise, that in many, many cases, the alleged “allergies” have more to do with psychology (parents’ psychology more than kids’ psychology I think) than physiology.  I’m not saying there’s no one in America who’s legitimately allergic to a peanut.  I’m just saying there’s hardly anyone in America (relatively speaking) who’s legitimately allergic to a peanut, at least to the extent that we need to make everyone else in that person’s environment change their lives to accommodate the “allergic” individual.  See, I told you so (sorry, sometimes it’s just too hard to resist saying it, I’ll wait a while before I say it again).

SCUBA 5/5/10

Short Column Undermining Bogus Addictions:

Joe likes to scuba dive.  He doesn’t just like it.  He loves it.  He loves how it allows him to escape below the surface of the water from all of his cares and problems and worries above the surface.  He also loves the surreal world that he visits below the surface, the colorful fish and coral, the weightlessness sensation, etc.  He loves it so much that he sometimes misses work to do it, and when he’s at work, he’s surfing scuba-diving web sites instead of working.  He loves it so much that he sometimes misses family obligations to do it.  Lately, he’s been doing it so much that he’s been fired from his job because of it, and his wife’s threatening to divorce him and take their kids to live with her parents in Kansas, far away from the ocean.  Yet Joe dives on.  Is Joe “addicted” to scuba diving?  No.  Joe is a jerk.  Joe is selfish.  Joe puts his needs and wants above the needs and wants of those he’s supposed to love and care about.  Joe enjoys scuba diving enough that he is willing to sacrifice his ability to provide for and spend time with his wife and children so he can continue diving.  Does Joe have a “disease.”  Maybe.  Someone whose calculations about relative priorities in life are as messed-up as Joe’s may have a mental deficiency.  But even if so, does it force Joe to continue diving to the detriment of himself and his family?  Does it deprive Joe of control over his behavior?  No.  Every time Joe goes diving, it’s a choice that Joe makes to put diving ahead of his family.  But what if Joe’s in the middle of a dive and someone drops a note down to him saying he needs to stop diving and go home to his family?  I mean, if Joe’s down deep enough, he can’t just surface immediately.  There are “physiological changes” brought on by deep diving that require a diver to surface cautiously, or he could die, right?  Yeah, OK, but he can surface, and once he does, he doesn’t have to go back down.  He might become anxious, antsy, maybe even depressed if he doesn’t dive again, but it is possible to make this dive his last dive.  Many others have done it.  If his family were more important to him than diving, he could do it, too.  Behavior that we typically and increasingly call “addiction,” whether it be scuba diving, gambling, sex, alcohol, drugs, or whatever else, is generally an elective product of selfishness, not a compulsive symptom of a “disease.”  Think about it — we don’t generally say that someone with Type-I Diabetes is “addicted” to insulin, even though that person really does have a disease and really does have to use a substance to stay alive, and amazingly, that person can use the insulin on a daily basis without it affecting his/her work and personal relationships really at all.  Somewhere in between are people who started using a substance for pain relief, built up a tolerance for it, required increasing doses of it to get the relief, and ended up willing to take doses large enough to be detrimental to themselves and/or their loved ones in other ways.  I actually have sympathy for them, but only if there’s no healthier way available to relieve their pain.  But the vast majority of cases that we label with the word “addiction” in our current culture are cases like Joe’s, where the activity or substance is something that the person started doing recreationally, for pleasure, and ended up liking enough to keep doing it to the detriment of him/herself and others.  Calling that a “disease” is bogus and helps no one because it disempowers the individual to choose to change his/her behavior, which is the only real “cure” for those kinds of “addictions.”

Mid-week check-in 5/5/10

In the middle of a busy lawpsyc week, here’s a brief check-in:

There’s a suspect in custody in last weekend’s Times Square bombing attempt, a naturalized American citizen originally from Pakistan.  It’s still not clear what his affiliations with other radicals in the U.S. and with overseas terror groups are and whether there’s any direct connection between him and the Pakistani Taliban’s online claim of responsibility.  He apparently gained U.S. citizenship by marriage to an American.  While I know a couple of foreign individuals who came to the U.S. as students, legitimately married Americans, i.e. married for love, and accrued citizenship benefits thereafter, this is an area of immigration law that bears closer scrutiny given the fact that the would-be Times Square bomber is just the latest in a succession of militants who’ve been present in the U.S. legally while planning acts of terrorism because they each were able to fool a needy, and/or lonely, and/or less-than-brilliant woman into marrying them.  As I’ve said repeatedly, we need to know exactly who is coming into this country and what they’re doing here, and if the volume of people coming in currently is too high for us to do the kind of investigations necessary to achieve that, then we’ll just have to limit the number of people coming in to however many we can investigate thoroughly and/or increase our investigative resources to meet the demand.  It’s not a matter of racism, it’s matter of national security, and it applies equally to the northern and southern borders, to Mexican immigrants and Irish immigrants, and the same thing goes for searching/screening each and every cargo shipment coming into this country’s ports.  Like I said in my last post, let’s not wait until something blows up to do what we’d do if it did.

There’s also a suspect in custody in the brutal murder of a female University of Virginia student.  It’s the boyfriend.  Surprise, surprise.  And he apparently has a history of violent altercations.  Surprise, surprise again.  In 2008, he reportedly had to be tased because he resisted arrest for drunken/disorderly conduct and in the course of that arrest, threatened to kill police.  Guess what he got for that?  Sixty days in jail…suspended.  That’s right, suspended, as in he didn’t spend any of that time actually in a jail cell.  Why would any judge in his right mind suspend that sentence?  Why should a dirtbag like this guy be able to threaten to kill the cops and not have to spend a single day in jail for it?  And after that ambivalent, nonchalant reaction to his aggressive behavior, why should we then have expected him to take society seriously when we said not to do such things in the future?  Why should we have expected him to think twice about threatening people in the future, or even escalating his behavior to deadly violence, as he allegedly did?  The answers are:  he wouldn’t, he shouldn’t, we shouldn’t have, and we shouldn’t have.  And now a young woman is dead.  Maybe the defendant would’ve done the same thing after he had served Brian Russell’s mandatory minimum sentence, in a very unpleasant place by the way, for threatening the cops, but maybe not.  Wouldn’t you like to be able to go back and at least try it?  I would.  It’s too late to try it with this guy now, but there are others just like him in court in your community every day.  Tell your legislators to mandate that more be done to people who exhibit violent aggression on the very first occurrence.

Study this:  Media reports about a new study of dementia are making it sound like dementia may be contagious.  The study found that when an elderly person has dementia, that person’s spouse is more likely than the general elderly population to develop dementia as well.  I don’t think this means that dementia is catching.  I think it probably just extends earlier research suggesting that when one half of an elderly couple dies, the other half tends to deteriorate (physically) thereafter (due to depression, lack of will to live without the deceased spouse, etc.).  This new study seems to me like it probably extends the findings about physical deterioration to include mental deterioration, and not just in response to a spouse’s death but also in response to a spouse’s physical/mental decline.

And study this:  Magnets for depression?  A new study found that putting some depressed people’s heads into magnetic fields appeared to have an antidepressant effect.  The only way I can really see this “working” is through the “placebo effect,” whereby something “works” because people think it will work (i.e. it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy), but hey, I could be wrong, and if so, that’d be great because it’d mean we have another non-chemical treatment for depression.  The study attempted to rule out the placebo effect by randomly assigning people to one of two groups, a group who got active magnetic devices and a group who got inactive magnetic devices.  A higher percentage of people in the group who had the active devices reported improvement of their depressive symptoms, but the number of people in both groups combined was less than 200, so I’ll need to see more research with larger numbers before I get excited about this.

Pro-active counter-terrorism psychology 5/2/10

You’ve probably heard that there was an attempt to set off a car bomb in New York City’s Times Square over this weekend.  Thankfully, a street vendor noticed the vehicle smoldering and alerted authorities, who successfully disarmed and disposed of the device before it could do any damage.  A bomb-maker affiliated with the Pakistani Taliban has claimed responsibility online, but that could just as easily be terroristic plagiarism as truth.  The important thing now, I believe, is for all Americans to be pro-active.  What do I mean by that?  I mean, let’s not sit back, breathe a collective sigh of relief that no one was hurt, and go back to business as usual until a bomb actually does go off somewhere.  That would be us being re-active, waiting until something foreseeable happens before we get very aggressive about it, which unfortunately is what we usually do (“we” meaning the public — law enforcement and the military are much more proactive and have foiled many terrorist attacks in their early stages, some of which we know about, many of which we don’t).  This attack came too close to success for comfort, and sadly, I think it’s only a matter of time before we have one that’s carried all the way through to completion, particularly when we have people running around this country, some of whom were born here, some of whom came in with permission, and some of whom came in without permission, but all with murder in mind, loosely bound together, not necessarily by any formal organization but by a deadly ideological opposition to traditional American philosophies and policies.  To think that we’ll ever be able to thwart the committed resolve of every ideologically-driven “lone wolf” isn’t very realistic.  But let’s not wait until the first one succeeds to do everything that we could be doing to prevent it.  Let’s at least minimize their chances of succeeding as much as we possibly can.  How?  Let’s pretend like the Times Square bomb had gone off and killed/maimed a lot of people.  Let’s do what we would do if Times Square were now smoldering (because it might be one day in the not-too-distant future).  Let’s really think about whether we want to be trying terror suspects in New York City courtrooms, making that population center an even bigger target of terror attacks.  Let’s really think about whether we want to be trying terror suspects in civilian courtrooms at all, on the highly-questionable theory that showcasing our “civility” to our enemies will somehow be a more-effective deterrent than a less-civil approach.  Let’s really think about whether we want to be making our law-enforcement and intelligence officers’ jobs even more difficult than they already are by tying their hands when it comes to electronic surveillance options.  Let’s really think about whether we want to screen each and every passenger on each and every flight no more and no less than the 80-year-old grandma from Lawrence, Kansas.  And even if the would-be Times Square bomber(s) turn(s) out to be a “Timothy McVeigh” (Oklahoma City bomber) type rather than a foreign terrorist or terror group, let’s really think about whether there’s anything wrong with Arizona’s legislature and governor saying that we should know exactly who’s coming into this country and why they’re here.  And if we’d want to start doing some things differently had the Times Square bomb actually exploded this weekend, then let’s be pro-active this time and do those things now rather than later.

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