Our local newspaper recently printed comments from our esteemed senators, Max Baucus and Jon Tester. Responding to General Petraeus’s report, both roundly denounced the hapless Iraqi government for, as Max put it, “failing to do what they need to do and that is stand on their own two feet.” Tester chimed in with the requisite paean: “While our troops are performing magnificently, the Iraqi government is making no progress at all.”
The political expediency of this formula is obvious, but the mindset it reveals could not be more disturbing. It’s as if you set your neighbor’s house on fire, loaned him your garden hose to put it out, then blamed him for the damage to the neighborhood when he was unable to put out the fire you started. In the work I do, which involves forensic status evaluations of criminal offenders, this blame-the-victim mentality is sadly familiar. It is an essential and characteristic piece of what we call Criminal Thinking.
Over the last decade, applying what we know about Criminal Thinking has been the single bright spot in the dreadful business of dealing with America’s expanding criminal-offender population. Virtually all of our court and prison systems have implemented increasingly sophisticated programs to address the core beliefs that drive the truly recidivist portion of our offender population. Criminal Thinking programs have produced genuine breakthroughs in rehabilitating individuals by identifying, deconstructing, and then reconstructing their antisocial habits of mind. Perhaps more importantly, we have been able to do a much better job of screening the intractable predators who cannot change and deploying resources to keep them in “the system.”
An overview of our understandings of Criminal Thinking is helpful in drawing important distinctions between healthy, ethically coherent traditions of American patriotism and the antisocial pathologies of our New Nationalism, to which the statements of our senators shamelessly pander. While applying concepts derived from individual psychology to social phenomena is tricky, the contrast between the antisocial nature of much of our current political discourse and the heritage of traditional American patriotism shows that this analytic framework is as predictive of grave consequences to societies as it is for individuals.
The unholy triad at the core of antisocial thinking is narcissism, impatience, and need for control. None of these are inherently bad. All of history’s great leaders have been narcissistic; in combination with generosity of spirit, you get Lincoln; in combination with meanness of spirit, you get Henry VIII. When systems or persons are out of control, a need to control is legitimate. Impatience can be the enemy of lethargy and complacency, fatal for both people and societies. But combine the three, and you have a quintessentially predatory entity.
The narcissistic predator carries senses of special entitlement and deep grievance. He is never properly appreciated and is inevitably misunderstood. Entitlement comes with a set of rules for conduct that apply only to this individual. His victimization of others is always justified by his sense of grievance, animated by the pain of never being appreciated, and, because he will never be understood anyway, he can shroud his life in deceit. To the narcissistic personality, error and adverse consequences must be driven by faults and mistakes of others, unfair circumstances, inexplicable malice, unforeseen complications, and so on.
This is why the inherently narcissistic idea of American exceptionalism is such a two-edged sword. Harnessed to coherent ethics and healthy appraisals of ourselves and others, it becomes a challenge for us to do better and a vehicle for enhancing social cohesion among citizens. Combined with entitlement, impatience, and a need to control, it produces the Iraq War, Guantanamo, and thousands of little Abu Ghraib moments. Our sense of entitlement justifies inhabiting our own special moral and ethical universe, just like the antisocial, and because we are never properly appreciated or understood, we can perpetrate crimes against innocents and guilty alike and justify lying about them to ourselves and others, just like those folks who come through my office two or three times a week.
Another important feature of the criminal mind is the inability to foresee and to learn from consequences. Pro-social minds process consequences as a deterrent to the behaviors that brought them about; the antisocial, whose uniqueness confers a sense of immunity, is incapable of appreciating that consequences occur as the direct result of his actions. This is where systems of denial come into play, and the criminal thinker will confabulate endlessly to explain away consequences that, if properly processed, would threaten his sense of entitlement and control. Just as the alcoholic’s DUI is never caused by the abuse of alcohol, the consequences of crime are never caused by the antisocial criminal’s thinking or even his behavior.
Thus Senator Tester’s further comment, “Refereeing a civil war in Iraq has distracted us from fighting a war in Afghanistan,” is an excellent example of Criminal Thinking and its consequences. It lays blame on others and endorses the continuation of the very behaviors that created the problem in the first place. Unable to accept consequences, our political leaders, like recidivist criminals, are unable to make the crucial reassessment of thought and behavior necessary to avoid continuously bad outcomes. The old AA nostrum that the definition of insanity is engaging in the same behaviors and expecting different results sadly applies to our political leadership in both parties. Though he was elected specifically to make good-faith efforts to get us out of the mess in Iraq, Tester, embracing political expediency and an antisocial mindset, can only contribute to the worsening of our enormous problems.
A sense of this futility dawning among many Montanans undoubtedly weighs on his job approval rating which, when I last checked was 41 percent and dropping. This explains his dismayed former supporters, who simply cannot believe what he has become and are even more grieved that the mandate of the last election has come to nothing. But there’s no reason for Jon Tester to worry. As long as he stays away from notorious crooks and keeps his eyes to the front in men’s rooms, the high-powered marketers who handle him will engineer a campaign based on telling people how wonderful they are, how unfair the world is to them, and he’ll be home free as long as—like the recidivist criminal—he never takes responsibility for anything.
Another salient characteristic of Criminal Thinking is the inability of the antisocial to register empathy. The skillful can mimic it in circumstances that do not directly affect them or when it may direct scrutiny away from them or their activities or when it may help them keep people confused about their nature or intent. A competent evaluator who understands Criminal Thinking can unravel this manipulative behavior by redirecting focus onto the actual victims of the predator to reveal the logical contortions that exclude empathetic response by this type of offender. A good example of empathetic displacement as a tactic would be how our ruling class is beside itself with empathy for the suffering people of Darfur, a situation where there is no reasonable theory of their responsibility and that, happily, they cannot be expected to do anything about.
To be fair, it is impossible for our elite to express genuine empathy in proportion to unspeakable hardship and relentless havoc visited upon the people of Iraq as a direct consequence of the American invasion. To acknowledge the horrific extent of what we have done to those very real people, their ancient society, and the world they inhabit would fly in the face of New Nationalism. That would open a dissenter to charges of undermining our troops, aiding terrorism, perhaps being labeled a “native-born enemy combatant,” and all sorts of such nonsense that would amount to career suicide in our nationalistically fevered political environment.
Entitlement and lack of empathy are a bad enough combination, but it is the need to control others that makes this a truly dynamic criminal pathology. Disordered need to control not only breeds excess in the behavior of criminal offenders, it fosters delusions about the extent and possibilities of exercising control that distance the criminal mind even further from reality and drive progressively worse decision making. Our New Nationalism demands an unstinting endorsement of American omnipotence by public figures. Interestingly, the more evidence we get of the limits of American power, the more stridently our ability to control obscure behaviors by people in remote corners of the world must be proclaimed. This is as good an example as one can find of a maladaptive and pathological belief-system operating in denial of reason and possibility. Its link to bad decisions is obvious.
In this construct, any failure to control must necessarily be failure on the part of whoever was supposed to do the controlling; the core idea of America’s potential to control everything can never be questioned. This logically absurd notion is an irreducible component of both the criminal personality and our New Nationalism. So like the habituated criminal, nationalist America does not have to accommodate society around us and instead must pursue ever more desperate measures to control things that cannot, and ought not, be controlled.
A real eye-rolling example of the futility of this thinking would be our belief that we have a right to control the education system in Pakistan. We don’t like those madrassas any more than they like us. So we lean on the president of Pakistan to shut them down. If he did that, he would be history and Pakistan’s nukes would soon be in the hands of the people running those madrassas, who resent us because we try to control them and think we are entitled to behave this way. This is the kind of progression of increasingly less desirable outcomes experienced by the Criminal-Thinking offender when he tries to take control of a situation, loses it, escalates, and winds up dead or in prison for crimes he never intended to commit when he started out. As long as he cannot self-regulate, and the criminal thinker cannot, he is doomed to play out to the end.
An important part of this sequence is the antisocial criminal’s inability to recognize the personhood of any individual who might stand in the way of achieving his aims. His P.O. is an a–hole, his girlfriend’s a skank, his boss is a moron. He applies negative labels to his victims to show that they all ask for it by not meeting his real or imagined needs and not submitting to his control. In thrall to the New Nationalism, the list of people and societies we view as legitimate is shrinking everyday. It has become normative to attempt to delegitimize not only our implacable enemies but any group or nation that might have the temerity to differ with Nationalist America. This is how the criminal thinker, in an escalating situation, is unable to see how his behaviors effect others and accomplishes nothing except to narrow his options, until the inevitable reckoning in the courtroom or the morgue, where he is finally and completely on his own.
That this is the fate of nations as well as individuals is an unarguable fact of history. We used to have leaders who not only thought and talked about, but actually believed in ideas like “malice toward none, and charity for all,” “a decent regard for the opinions of mankind,” and having “nothing to fear except fear itself.” These powerful statements of militantly pro-social beliefs once defined American patriotism. From the moment the Founding Fathers looked at the Articles of Confederation, admitted they had made a mistake, and set out to fix it, right up to the civil-rights movement, the best of America has always been produced through taking our own inventory and fixing it. Self-control—not controlling others—is at the heart of American patriotic tradition.
But security to self-regulate, like decency, charity, and confidence, is a disposable commodity in an environment of total and perpetual war with implacable and fiendish enemies. These virtues have no use in a world that never understands us, conspires to deny us our entitlements, and resists our attempts to control, as our leaders tell us we must in order to survive. But all this fear and loathing obscures the fact that, just like the antisocial, Nationalist American leadership can mimic self-regulation and adaptation from time to time. But they don’t want to do it, don’t need to do it, and have sadly been incapable of doing it for some time now.
It’s impossible not to draw comparisons to the belief systems of 20th-century nationalist Europe. Nothing says “entitlement” quite like the Master Race, and if the death camps aren’t the apotheosis of impatience, I’d like to know what is. Invading all of your neighbors is clear evidence that your need to control is out of control. So we have Germany of the early 1940s, steeped in Criminal Thinking, led by its politicians and enthusiastically endorsed its people.
Now consider the very same Germany later in the decade. In the space of a handful of years, something changed profoundly. I would submit that this change was really very simple: When you’re living in the rubble you’ve created, narcissism is difficult to sustain. When you have to engage in a daily struggle to survive, impatience is useless if not deadly. When you have been defeated so thoroughly that you lack both capability and will to resist those who beat you, you don’t control anything. By 1950, those same German people and their leadership reverted to pro-social thinking in government. It has succeeded marvelously.
Today Germany plays well with others, which the narcissist cannot do. It advocates patience in the forums of which it is part. It leads the EU in the devolution of power to the regions, and when exercising control of others is necessary, it insists that it be shared. Additionally, and perhaps unsurprisingly, it is not into malice and does charity better than just about anyone. Germans’ regard for the opinions of mankind borders on reverence; they are calm, stable, resilient. That should make us think. It may be that postwar Germans are better Americans than what we have become.
We should be mindful that Nazi Germany, too, convinced itself that it was hated and conspired against because of its virtue rather than its thuggery, just as we proclaim that we are hated because of our “freedom” rather than our disordered need to control and the excess it breeds. There’s no evidence that the Nazi leadership thought of themselves as criminals, let alone intended to become the most notorious criminals in the history of the human race. They were just a bunch of thugs who, implementing a classically antisocial system of thought and behavior, found their options progressively narrowed, as all such criminal thinkers do, until they wound up with death camps, suicide, and a rubble-dwelling Volk. The antisocial nature of Nationalism is there in the historical record, written in the blood of millions, and available for all to contemplate. The only question is, are we too far down the road to turn around?
Jim Pittaway is a licensed psychotherapist. He resides and practices in Missoula, Montana.