Welcome to the American Gulag: Using Involuntary Commitment Laws To Silence Dissenters
by John W. Whitehead
What happened to 26-year-old decorated Marine Brandon Raub – who was targeted because of his Facebook posts, interrogated by government agents about his views on government corruption, arrested with no warning, labeled mentally ill for subscribing to so-called “conspiratorial” views about the government, detained against his will in a psych ward for standing by his views, and isolated from his family, friends and attorneys – has happened many times throughout history in totalitarian regimes.
As Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anne Applebaum observes in Gulag: A History: “The exile of prisoners to a distant place, where they can ‘pay their debt to society,’ make themselves useful, and not contaminate others with their ideas or their criminal acts, is a practice as old as civilization itself.”
The advent of psychiatry eliminated the need to exile political prisoners, allowing governments instead to declare such dissidents mentally ill and unfit for society. For example, government officials in the Cold War-era Soviet Union often used psychiatric hospitals as prisons in order to isolate political prisoners from the rest of society, discredit their ideas, and break them physically and mentally through the use of electric shocks, drugs and various medical procedures.
In addition to declaring political dissidents mentally unsound, Russian officials also made use of an administrative process for dealing with individuals who were considered a bad influence on others or troublemakers. Author George Kennan describes a process in which:
The obnoxious person may not be guilty of any crime . . . but if, in the opinion of the local authorities, his presence in a particular place is “prejudicial to public order” or “incompatible with public tranquility,” he may be arrested without warrant, may be held from two weeks to two years in prison, and may then be removed by force to any other place within the limits of the empire and there be put under police surveillance for a period of from one to ten years. Administrative exile–which required no trial and no sentencing procedure–was an ideal punishment not only for troublemakers as such, but also for political opponents of the regime. Sound familiar? This age-old practice by which despotic regimes eliminate their critics or potential adversaries by declaring them mentally ill and locking them up in psychiatric wards for extended periods of time is a common practice in present-day China. What is particularly unnerving, however, is that this practice of making individuals disappear is happening with increasing frequency in America. Indeed, Raub’s case exposes the seedy underbelly of a governmental system that is targeting Americans – especially military veterans – for expressing their discontent over America’s rapid transition to a police state.
It’s no coincidence that within days of Raub being seized at his Virginia home on August 16, 2012, and forcibly held in a VA psych ward, news reports started surfacing of other veterans having similar experiences. These incidents are merely the realization of various U.S. government initiatives dating back to 2009, including one dubbed Operation Vigilant Eagle which calls for surveillance of military veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, characterizing them as extremists and potential domestic terrorist threats because they may be “disgruntled, disillusioned or suffering from the psychological effects of war.” Under the guise of mental health treatment and with the complicity of government psychiatrists and law enforcement officials, these veterans are increasingly being portrayed as ticking time bombs in need of intervention.
One tactic being used to deal with so-called “mentally ill suspects who also happen to be trained in modern warfare” is through the use of civil commitment laws, found in all states and employed throughout American history to not only silence but cause dissidents to disappear. For example, in 2006, NSA officials attempted to label former employee Russ Tice, who was willing to testify in Congress about the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program, as “mentally unbalanced” based upon two psychiatric evaluations ordered by his superiors. In 2009, NYPD Officer Adrian Schoolcraft had his home raided, and he was handcuffed to a gurney and taken into emergency custody for an alleged psychiatric episode. It was later discovered by way of an internal investigation that his superiors were retaliating against him for reporting police misconduct.
Most recently, of course, Virginia’s civil commitment law was used to justify arresting and detaining Marine Brandon Raub in a psychiatric ward. On Thursday, August 16, 2012, a swarm of local police, Secret Service and FBI agents arrived at Raub’s home, asking to speak with him about posts he had made on his Facebook page made up of song lyrics, political opinions and dialogue used in a virtual card game. In a hearing on August 20, government officials pointed to Raub’s Facebook posts as the sole reason for their concern and for his continued incarceration. Ignoring Raub’s explanations about the fact that the Facebook posts were being read out of context, Raub was sentenced to up to 30 days’ further confinement in a psychiatric ward.
On August 23, Circuit Court Judge Allan Sharrett declared the government’s case to be lacking in factual allegations and ordered Raub immediately released. However, for the tens of thousands of individuals detained – wrongfully or otherwise – under civil commitment laws every year, regaining their freedom is nearly impossible, predicated as it is on a bureaucratic legal and judicial system. The problem, of course, is that the diagnosis of mental illness, while a legitimate concern for some Americans, has over time become a convenient means by which to penalize certain “unacceptable” social behaviors.
Of course, this is all part of a larger trend in American governance whereby dissent is criminalized and pathologized, and dissenters are censored, silenced or declared unfit for society. Governmental authorities at all levels have made it abundantly clear that they want no one questioning their authority. And for those who do take to the streets to express their opinions and beliefs, rows of riot police, clad in jackboots, military vests, and helmets, holding batons, stun guns, assault rifles, and sometimes even grenade launchers, are there to keep them in line.
Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead [send him mail] is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. He is the author of The Change Manifesto (Sourcebooks).
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