04.26.09

Why Obama Is in Denial

The president is doing the American psyche a great disservice by refusing to aggressively push for the prosecution of those who engineered the Bush torture policy. Justin Frank, author of Bush on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President, says there’s only way to psychologically move forward on the issue of torture: Prosecute the past.

The politics may still be hazy, but from a psychoanalytic perspective it’s clear: the psychological health of the nation depends on our prosecuting the Bush administration officials responsible for torture. Strange as it may sound, this can only benefit our own collective mental health: our psychic healing demands that we affix responsibility and recognize that, no matter how well we all hide it or compensate for it, George W. Bush’s cruelty exists in each of us.

It is not enough simply to acknowledge the sadism of Bush’s motives and leave it at that. Obama’s reluctance to pursue the matter further is sort of like turning up at a funeral wearing a red dress: One recognizes the death enough to show up, but denies any pain at the occasion.

Just as Bush outsourced his own sadism to Guantanamo, most of us outsourced our sadism to him by passively accepting what he did. It’s a truth we all want to avoid having to recognize—what drove his orders was a sense of pleasure derived from inflicting pain on others, And, like it or not, this tendency to derive pleasure from cruelty is a trait that, at some level, we all share.

A brief clinical example from my practice illustrates how this sadism gets expressed in daily life, and the cost of failing to recognize it.

This particular patient spent several years talking about the cruelty inflicted on her by her father, who, after beating her, would cry and ask for her forgiveness. Though she cried openly in treatment, I felt that something was missing. Eventually I noticed that she refused to acknowledge anything I said to her. She would reject my help with a smile, and say she valued me as a person even though I wasn’t helping her change. Her quiet rebukes made me feel small, and I began to wonder why I so badly wanted credit for my efforts to reach her.

It was only after I recognized my anger that I realized what was happening: she had placed me in the role she’d been in as a little girl—hurting me, then assuaging me with kind words—while she played the role of her unreachable father. She had begun to feel pleasure at treating me the way her father had once treated her.

When she recognized that she was doing this, she felt remorse. More importantly, she stopped blaming her father for inflicting pain on her, and saw that she was the cruel one in her adult life. Only then could the therapy move forward.

So it is with the nation.

Recent events reveal a variety of defense mechanisms we use to remain in denial about the meaning of the Bush administration’s atrocities. We turn away and ignore them, following the example of Peggy Noonan, who recently urged the nation to “move on.” We say that the torture orders were issued purely for national security reasons, or ascribe them to the darker natures of George Bush and Dick Cheney. We minimize their relevance in comparison to our economic challenges, or sabotage the investigation by politicizing the process.

But the existence of sadism is a part of the human condition that is both universal and universally hard to acknowledge. While it is painful to experience another person’s cruelty, it is perhaps most unpleasant, from a psychoanalytic perspective, to confront it in oneself.

But we must confront our sadism to protect ourselves from it. We socialize our children to contain their unbridled sadism, and implement laws to limit its impact in adults. From the Ten Commandments to the penal code, our laws protect us from the sadistic behavior of others, and even from recognizing sadistic feelings in ourselves. But when those laws are broken, we must face our common sadism to guard against more severe expressions of it.

We must prosecute our own war crimes so we can learn about our own passive complicity—otherwise, like my patient, we will torture again, unknowingly, until we recognize both the pleasure we derive from our cruelty and the pain it causes ourselves and others.

It is not enough to simply acknowledge the sadism of Bush’s motives and leave it at that. This is essentially what Obama proposes when he urges reflection but not retribution. He seems to recommend facing facts without experiencing the emotional impact of them. Obama’s reluctance to further pursue the matter is sort of like turning up at a funeral wearing a red dress: one recognizes the death enough to show up, but denies any pain at the occasion. It is perhaps the subtlest way to evade psychic truth.

With each new revelation about the Bush legacy of torture, however, our collective red dress becomes harder to ignore. In the Bush years, we let others do our sadistic dirty work, and washed our hands of any responsibility. Now the damn spots won’t come out, but they may serve to help us move ahead—soberly, but with renewed self-respect.

Justin A. Frank is a clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the George Washington University Medical Center and a teaching analyst at the Washington Psychoanalytic Institute. He is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post and author of Bush on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President.