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The Torture Report: What’s Animal Rights Got To Do With It?

Like many of you, I was shocked but not surprised by the contents of the Executive Summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture. I’ve only read a few snippets of it, but that was more than enough. I read that in July, 2002 the CIA asked the Department of Justice permission to use the techniques described in the U.S. Air Force’s “Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE)” program. The SERE program was designed to help American prisoners of war counteract coercive interrogation techniques, so this was, in effect, a request to turn the program on its head. Once given the go-ahead, the CIA hired two psychologists who applied the underlining theory of “learned helplessness” to these techniques. I was curious about their use of learned helplessness and looked it up.

The term learned helplessness was coined in 1967 by two University of Pennsylvania psychologists investigating the causes of human depression. They placed three groups of dogs in harnesses. The first group was just harnessed and released after a set period of time. The second group was given electric shocks that would stop once the dog pushed a lever. The third group was harnessed to the second group, and was also shocked, but this group’s lever did nothing. Thus, a dog in the third group experienced having no control over the shocks, since they only stopped when the dog it was harnessed to pushed its lever. The first two groups quickly recovered from their experience, but the third group became passive and exhibited symptoms similar to human depression.

Evidently that wasn't enough. The psychologists next placed the same three groups of dogs in a box in which the dogs could escape the shocks by jumping over a low partition. The first two groups escaped easily, but the third group didn’t even try. The psychologists concluded that the third group had learned to be helpless. These experimenters apparently felt there was nothing wrong with abusing dogs in order to learn more about human depression.

Although the Senate Torture report’s contents did not surprise me, the background of the strategy did. Experimentation on animals formed the theoretical underpinning of the techniques applied by the CIA’s contracted psychologists. Their goal was to turn the human beings under their control into blobs of putty whose passivity matched the dogs in the University of Pennsylvania study. Reading about the origins of the CIA’s torture program drives home the connection between animal and human rights activism.

Some of my left-wing friends feel that fighting for animal rights is a trivial pursuit when compared with preventing the horrific crimes against humanity carried out by our military, and the multinational corporations and governments they influence or control. I’ve attempted to convince my friends that animal rights groups are fighting our shared enemies, the same foes we face every day. And the values that these young activists seek to spread are those to which other progressives aspire.

The psychologists who made millions by tormenting the post-9/11 detainees in the name of fighting terrorism have much in common with those who thought it acceptable to shock dogs into helplessness to study human depression. An unexpected – but important – takeaway from the Torture Report. Read More 
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