ISIS and the sadistic theater of learned helplessness.
Image from Flickr user Ben McIver.
By Stephen Darcy Collins
In 1967, Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania placed a dog into a hammock in a white sound-reducing cubicle. The mongrel’s legs hung below her body through four holes in the rubberized cloth. He strapped his subject in, fixed her head in place with a yoke and taped two brass plate electrodes to her hind paws. He retreated to a safe distance with a 500v ac transformer. Without warning he shocked the dog through her footpads for half a second. The subject howled and struggled, but to no avail. Seligman waited ninety seconds before repeating the trial. In all, he shocked the dog sixty-four times in less than two hours.
On August 19, 2014, ISIL released a video entitled “A Message to America” online. In it, hostage James “Jim” Foley knelt in the desert under clear blue sky, wearing an orange jumpsuit with a black clad figure to the right. The world was gripped. ISIL delivered a carefully calibrated shock. Previous videos had shown beheadings from beginning to end. This one cut away from the act to the aftermath of murder: Jim Foley’s decapitated body. The terrorists repeated the procedure three times under the same conditions. Steven Sotloff, David Cawthorne Haines, and Alan Denning knelt in a desert under clear blue skies, wearing orange jumpsuits with the same black clad figure to the right. The imagery became fixed in our minds.
The next time the lights dimmed she stopped vocalizing and lay silent and agitated on the floor, passively accepting a painful electric shock.
Seligman introduced the dog to a shuttle box twenty-four hours after the harness trial. He gave his subject five minutes to adjust to the apparatus, comprising two black compartments separated by a low wall. He dimmed the lights and administered an electric shock through the grid floor. The subject howled and jumped over the wall, terminating the trial. Seligman waited ninety seconds before repeating the procedure. The dog howled again, but this time took longer to jump over the wall. The next time the lights dimmed she stopped vocalizing and lay silent and agitated on the floor, passively accepting a painful electric shock. The dog exhibited the same behavior in response to shock during the remainder of the trials, a total of ten. Pain kept coming no matter what she did.
On September 16, 2014, ISIL introduced the world to a shuttle box of its own. The apparatus consisted of two desert towns separated by a border. The shock was administered through the Syrian side. ISIL raised its black flag and advanced on Kobani, whose white rooftops were visible from Turkey. The international community could jump the wall at any time to come to the aid of the town, terminating the trial. Instead Turkey lined its tanks up on the border. US airstrikes howled while Germany supplied arms to the Kurdish struggle. Shock kept coming no matter what they did. The world lay silent and agitated, waiting for Kobani to fall.
Black clad figures advanced on Kobani under clear blue skies. All that was missing were orange jumpsuits.
Martin Seligman allowed his subject seven days’ rest before the next phase. He reintroduced the dog to the shuttle box and noted the same passive behavior as before. It was as though the harness trial had extinguished her normal reaction to pain. If this were so, the experiment might be what psychologists call an “extinction procedure.” Seligman and his partner Bruce Overmier coined a term for the unexpected behavior. The dog had “learned helplessness.”
ISIL had devised an extinction procedure of its own. Black-clad figures advanced on Kobani under clear blue skies. All that was missing were orange jumpsuits. Hundreds of civilians waited for five thousand terrorists to arrive. Everyone knew what would happen if—when—Kobani fell. We’d been conditioned to expect it. Still the world watched, past trauma degrading our ability to act.
One group of dogs in Seligman’s experiments received a stronger shock than others. He called this the “high motivation” group. They fared worse than the control; their performance was “significantly retarded.” The massacre of innocents is the greatest shock of all. We are in a shuttle box with Kobani, whether we like it or not.
Stephen Darcy Collins worked as a refugee lawyer for several years before completing an MFA at Columbia University, where he was a TOMS Fellow. His non-fiction has appeared most recently at thejournal.ie, Three Monkeys Online, and at Krank.ie.