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A Moral Center In a Decayed Ethical Universe

Former Abu Ghraib interrogator turned playwright Joshua Casteel, left, interviews an unidentified prisoner, played by David Blum, during a dress rehearsal of his production, "Returns," in 2007. (AP Photo/The Daily Iowan, Ben Roberts)

Joshua Casteel had to decide between attending seminary and deploying to Iraq as an army interrogator. He chose Iraq, where he hoped to bring morality and humanity to interrogations. But army interrogators already had their own version of “moral order”:

For the first week Casteel sat in on interrogations. There were six booths on each side of a long hallway; down the center was a two-way mirror that didn’t always work well, and when it didn’t, the prisoners watched you watch them. The rooms held little beyond plastic chairs, cheap tables, maybe zip ties on the chair legs. Sometimes a steel hook was attached to the floor. Every now and then prisoners were led to a more comfortable room, to confuse them, make them relax. The goal was to make them slip up. Sometimes Casteel saw men kept naked. Sometimes they were handcuffed to chairs.

During lessons, Casteel’s supervisors explained how to use fabricated stories and charges of homosexuality to shame the prisoners and manipulate them. The commanders were clear about who they were dealing with, Casteel remembered.

“These men,” they said, “are the agents of Satan, gentlemen.”

Casteel kept his own moral compass in the interrogation room, where it turned out that treating people like people was more effective than treating people like animals to be broken.

It turned out he couldn’t help but feel bad for the prisoners. It didn’t matter if the prisoner was a wrongly accused farmer or a jihadist bent on Casteel’s destruction. His orders commanded that he approach prisoners as assets to manipulate, but when Casteel walked into the interrogation room and saw the prisoner, he thought, This is a man in need of redemption. “From my very first interrogation,” he wrote later, “I have simply lacked the ability to look at the person I interrogate in a way that does not demand I also think about what is best for him.” Soon Casteel was attending confession with an Army chaplain after each interrogation, because “of an overwhelming burden to atone for what I considered the sin of reducing individuals to strategic ‘objects of exploitation.’” Once, he told a prisoner “You are not a criminal, you are not a terrorist,” and the prisoner wept, because no American had ever called him anything but evil.

At the same time, Casteel was extracting more information from the prisoners than other interrogators. During interrogations, Casteel smiled a lot and tapped his foot or smoked a cigarette to give the prisoner time to think, or sometimes because he didn’t quite know what to do next. He tried to show respect. He listened more than he spoke. He paid attention to a prisoner’s words, tone of voice, body language. “Some good news came in today,” he wrote to his parents after a month in Iraq. “I was just notified that the results of my past three interrogations received special recognition from ‘higher up.’ I guess my cigarettes and smiles with the ruthless man I spoke briefly of earlier did something profitable for the commanders in the field. That was a big boost of confidence, being as the best thing I did was simply respect him.”

Casteel eventually left the military as a conscientious objector after one particularly transformative encounter with a detainee. On his return to the U.S., he struggled both with the aftermath of his experience and with his health — his time monitoring burning waste pits in Iraq left him with Iraq/Afghanistan War-Lung Injury, and the ensuing cancer killed him. For Smithsonian and Epic magazines, Jennifer Percy tells the story of his life, work, and death.

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There’s a Fine Line Between “Discovering” and “Interloping”

In this Nov. 14, 2005 file photo, clouds hang over the North Sentinel Island, in India's southeastern Andaman and Nicobar Islands. (AP Photo/Gautam Singh, File)

John Allen Chau was killed by the famously isolationist residents of North Sentinel Island when he attempted to bring them Jesus. Whatever you think about his religious motives, he also represents a trend in “authentic” tourism — an entitled, colonialist trend — that evinces a profound disrespect for the humanity of other people. At The Walrus, adventurer Kate Harris digs into the essential egotism of travel to encourage us all to find a more respectful way of exploring our world.

Survival International, a non-­profit that works for tribal peoples’ rights, has documented a troubling rise in the popularity of “human safaris,” in which tourists seek out fleeting, zoo-like glimpses of uncontacted Indigenous peoples. In the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, part of the same archipelago as North Sentinel, you could, until recently (and possibly still), peer out of a tour bus at the Jarawa, a group of hunter-gatherers through whose traditional forest territory the Andaman Trunk Road was built. Similar sightings of Peruvian and Brazilian Indigenous tribes are available if you quietly ask the right guide. And, if these experiences aren’t ­thrilling enough, several organizations offer “first contact” treks, including ones in Papua New ­Guinea to visit “undiscovered tribes” who have “never seen a white man.”

Done well, tourism focus­ed on local peoples can give them more control over their destiny and widen the hearts and minds of travellers to the wonders and complexities of the world. Done poorly, tribal tourism denies people the dignity of being left alone—denies them, even, recognition as people. Either way, travel has a tendency to bring out the Chau in all of us. We want what we want when we go abroad, which often is the untouched, the authentic—even as our arrival, by definition, undermines those very qualities in a place or of a culture and contributes to the slow, involuntary conversion of one way of life into another.

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‘It’s a Perfect Profession for a Con Artist’

Southern Baptist Convention president Steve Gaines preaches at the convention's annual meeting in 2018 in Dallas. On the agenda was a resolution calling on the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S. to repudiate any rhetoric or behavior that dishonors women. (AP Photo/Jeffrey McWhorter)

As the Catholic Church sags further and further under the weight of sexual abuse stories, an in-depth investigation in the Houston Chronicle, by Robert DownenLise Olsen, and John Tedesco, shows us that it’s not the only denomination in trouble: abuses within the Southern Baptist Convention have left hundreds of victims in their wakes. Unlike the Catholic Church, which has centralized management that can move priests around to hide or minimize abuse, the SBC has a diffuse administrative system — but one that makes it equally easy for predators to continue working in the church.

SBC churches and organizations share resources and materials, and together they fund missionary trips and seminaries. Most pastors are ordained locally after they’ve convinced a small group of church elders that they’ve been called to service by God. There is no central database that tracks ordinations, or sexual abuse convictions or allegations.

All of that makes Southern Baptist churches highly susceptible to predators, says Christa Brown, an activist who wrote a book about being molested as a child by a pastor at her SBC church in Farmers Branch, a Dallas suburb.

“It’s a perfect profession for a con artist, because all he has to do is talk a good talk and convince people that he’s been called by God, and bingo, he gets to be a Southern Baptist minister,” said Brown, who lives in Colorado. “Then he can infiltrate the entirety of the SBC, move from church to church, from state to state, go to bigger churches and more prominent churches where he has more influence and power, and it all starts in some small church.

“It’s a porous sieve of a denomination.”

The abuse breeding ground is vast: the Southern Baptist Convention has over 47,000 churches.

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Who You Were Is Who You Are Is Who You Will Be

Photo by Albert Bridge via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

People talk about having a weight “set point” that their bodies naturally gravitate to. Can your whole life have a set point? In an essay published at Medium, Megan Daum looks at her life, age 47, and finds it’s remarkably similar to her life, age 27 — and that’s not a bad thing.

And that brings me back to my apartment window, looking down at the river while listening to the same music I listened to in 1997. The big picture for me these days might be a mélange of sadness and puzzlement and oddly exhilarating resignation, but in this fleeting moment, it feels nearly perfect. I have work that feeds my brain at the same time that it pays for that supermarket sushi. I have nearly a half-century’s worth of friends, which is something that is mathematically impossible to have in your twenties. These friends are in practically every time zone on the globe, and even when I haven’t seen them in years, I can count on them to lift me up or crack me up or at the very least impart some kind of gossip that makes me think about human nature in a whole new way. I’m paying more rent than I can afford, but somehow I’m affording it anyway. The surface of my desk is as littered with paper napkins and hair accessories as it was 20 years ago, but I’ve met my deadlines anyway. Except for the ones I’ve missed.

My 1997 self would be satisfied with how things turned out, at least until I told her this was us at 47 and not 37.

“Is this as far as we got?” she might ask.

“Ask me in 10 years,” I might answer.

Except I already know the answer. It’s as far as we got. It’s as far as we were ever supposed to get.

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The Navy Declines to Respond

The USS Fitzgerald, damaged by the collision with a Philippine cargo ship, is anchored at Yokosuka Naval Base on June 18, 2017. (The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP Images )

An under-trained, over-worked skeleton crew. Failed certifications, failed electrical systems. Primary navigation running on Windows 2000. Radar tool that fails at the most basic function of radar and can’t automatically track other ships: “[t]o keep the screen updated, a sailor had to punch a button a thousand times an hour.” ProPublica‘s comprehensive investigation into USS Fitzgerald’s collision with a cargo ship in the South China Sea, by T. Christian Miller, Megan Rose, and Robert Faturechi, reveals the long chain of poor decisions and pressures that led to seven deaths and forced sailors to make truly horrifying decisions:

Vaughan and Tapia waited until they were alone at the bottom of the ladder. When the water reached their necks, they, too, climbed out the 29-inch-wide escape hatch. Safe, they peered back down the hole. In the 90 seconds since the crash, the water had almost reached the top of Berthing 2.

Now they faced a choice. Naval training demanded that they seal the escape hatch to prevent water from flooding the rest of the ship. But they knew that bolting it down would consign any sailors still alive to death.

Vaughan and Tapia hesitated. They agreed to wait a few seconds more for survivors. Tapia leaned down into the vanishing inches of air left in Berthing 2.

“Come to the sound of my voice,” he shouted.

The Fitzgerald had been steaming on a secret mission to the South China Sea when it was smashed by a cargo ship more than three times its size.

The 30,000-ton MV ACX Crystal gouged an opening bigger than a semitruck in the starboard side of the destroyer. The force of the collision was so great that it sent the 8,261-ton warship spinning on a 360-degree rotation through the Pacific.

On the ship’s bridge, a crewman activated two emergency lights high on the ship’s mast, one on top of the other: The Fitzgerald, it signaled, was red over red — no longer under command.

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It’s a Lovely Day for a Bike Ride

Photo by Mack Male via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Tom Justice was an Olympic cycling hopeful. Tom Justice’s life didn’t work out quite the way he’d hoped. Tom Justice found an unlikely escape hatch: bank robbery, but just for the thrills — not the cash. In October 1999, he robbed his second bank, the Lake Forest, Illinois, branch of Northern Trust, escaping by bike with over $3,000. He put the cash in paper bags and left them in spots where homeless people would find them.

He eventually robbed 26 banks of nearly $130,000 before descending into drug addiction. Steven Leckart‘s story in Chicago Magazine is as engaging and cinematic as one could want for this sad, twisted Robin Hood of a tale.

But before he could flash his lights, the cyclist pulled over and hopped off his bike. When Thompson pulled up, the guy was fidgeting with his back wheel. It started to drizzle again.

“Can I talk to you for a second?” Thompson asked through the open window of his patrol car.

“Hey, yeah, sorry, it’s gonna take me a second,” Tom said, continuing to tinker.

Thompson parked a few feet ahead, turned on his flashing red and blue lights, and walked back to the cyclist.

“I live in San Ramon. I’m riding home,” said Tom, pretending to adjust his brakes before climbing onto the bike and clicking his left foot into the pedal.

“Do you mind if I take a look in your bag?” Thompson asked the cyclist.

“Yeah, no problem. I just have to unclip,” replied Tom. “These pedals are actually counterbalanced, so I need to click into both in order to get out at the same time.”

There’s no such thing as counterbalanced pedals. But Thompson didn’t know that. He watched as the cyclist lifted his right foot, clicked down into the pedal, and — whoosh! — bolted into the street in a dead start as hellacious as any Tom had ever mustered on a velodrome.

“I knew it!” cried Thompson. He desperately grabbed his radio, but another officer was talking on the channel. The cyclist shot down Main Street and out of sight.

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Prison or Bust: A Cost-Benefit Analysis

Edward Averill was alone, and broke, and unwell. So he deliberately, non-violently robbed a bank to get sent to jail; at least there, people would have to take care of him and he’d get the help he needed. At The Atavist, Ciara O’Rourke tells his story with deep wells of compassion. It’s an emotional rollercoaster of profound loneliness, desperation, thwarted plans, revived hope, and an uncertain future — a man who slipped through every crack there was to slip through and tried to work a system that wasn’t working for him.

It wasn’t unheard of for people to commit crimes to get health care—a North Carolina man with arthritis and slipped discs robbed a bank of $1 in 2011, and two years later an Oregon man did the same thing for the same amount. Still, Brewer didn’t think anyone had ever done it in Austin. He asked if Averill was having a mental health crisis. “Nope,” Averill said. “I know exactly what I’m doing.” He described the robbery in meticulous detail. He said he wanted to be found guilty and go to prison as soon as possible.

When Brewer walked out of the room, he turned to his partner. “This is not one I’m going to brag about,” he said.

Brewer went to the municipal court to get a magistrate judge’s signature on Averill’s arrest affidavit. Judge Stephen Vigorito stared at Brewer after he read the document. “Are you kidding me?” Vigorito asked. After several minutes, the judge set a bond of $10,000, the lowest Brewer had ever seen for this particular crime—bonds in bank-robbery cases are usually several times that.

As the detective walked down the courthouse hallway to file the paperwork with the county clerk, he heard Vigorito running behind him. “Give it back, give it back,” the judge said, reaching for the affidavit when he caught up to Brewer. Vigorito wrote a new bond amount— $7,500—pressing hard with his pen so the numbers would be legible over the original figure.

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We’ve All Been Unreliable Witnesses to Lorena

Documentary subject Lorena Gallo, formerly Lorena Bobbitt, is interviewed at the premiere of the film "Lorena" during the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019, in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Danny Moloshok/Invision/AP)

For the New York Times, Amy Choznik spent time with Lorena Gallo in the lead-up to “Lorena,” a four-part Jordan Peele-produced documentary that launches this Friday. Many of us could probably spit out a synopsis of what made Lorena a household name (and a household punchline) — her last name, at the height of her notoriety, was Bobbitt. Many of us would probably be very wrong about the details.

Lorena is correct, of course, that most people forget that before she was tried for what she did, John was charged with marital sexual assault. (He was acquitted.) At the time, marital rape only recently had been made a crime in all 50 states and was nearly impossible to prove in Virginia. Many in the media, including Ladies’ Home Journal and Gay Talese on assignment for The New Yorker, questioned whether it was an oxymoron. (“Wife Rape? Who Really Gets Screwed?” an earlier column in Penthouse read.) Al Franken, as the character Stuart Smalley on Saturday Night Live, implored Lorena to apologize to John’s penis. And, she is correct, that people forget that a jury found her not guilty by reason of temporary insanity. We forget about the string of witnesses at her trial who testified that they had seen bruises on her arms and neck and that she had called 911 repeatedly and that John had bragged to friends about forcing his wife to have sex. In the years since the trial, he was arrested several times and served jail time for violence against two different women. (He denied the allegations.) “This is about a victim and a survivor and this is about what’s happening in our world today,” Lorena told me.

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How Do You Get Help When No One Believes You?

In this Nov. 18, 2015, file photo, labels on a cabinet in a ward at the Western State Hospital in Lakewood, Wash., read "flashlights" and "restraints." (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

Head to BuzzFeed for an excerpt from Esmé Weijun Wang‘s The Collected Schizophrenias, on her institutionalizations — some of them might have saved her life, but they were themselves traumatizing experiences that reveal the deep flaws in the way we approach psychiatric care. Told with flat-out candor and beautifully precise language, she dispels deep-seated misconceptions about schizophrenic disorders and the people who live with them.

During my second hospitalization, which occurred in the same location as my first, I passed a nurse.

“How are you doing?” she asked.

“Okay,” I said, which was true. My mania and subsequent depression seemed to have been exorcised by the overdose I’d taken immediately prior to being hospitalized, and other than being frustrated by my return to the WS2 ward, life no longer felt like an intolerable sentence.

The nurse smiled. “But how are you really doing?”

“I’m really doing okay.”

The notes I’ve acquired from Yale Psychiatric Institute read, among other things, “Patient shows lack of insight.”

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Into the Mouth of Madness and Out Again, Alive

A still from video released via the Thai NavySEAL Facebook Page on Wednesday, July 11, 2018, shows rescuers with an evacuated boy at the Tham Luang Nang Non cave, Thailand. (Thai NavySEAL Facebook Page via AP)

In the summer of 2018, 12 members of a Thai junior football team and their coach were successfully rescued from a cave in which they’d become trapped when heavy rains caused sudden flooding. The rescue options ranged from unrealistic to torturous to deadly to mad. At Maclean’s, Shannon Gormley tells the story of the rescue divers who chose “mad” — and succeeded.

Dr. Harry believes the risks of sedating the children beat the risks of not sedating the children. The lead divers believe the same, and the Thais believe the experts know best. The children cannot dive; the children will panic; the children will drown their rescuers and themselves. That is why Dr. Harry is going to do this: inject 12 kids with a sedative so powerful it will knock them out cold.

Ketamine: a horse tranquilizer, an operating-room drug, a soon-to-be cave-rescue pharmaceutical product in its early testing stages on rock-entombed human minors.

If only it were so simple. The children’s drugs will need to be topped up with half-doses along the way. Dr. Harry cannot dive every child out himself, but the divers are not medical doctors. Dr. Harry must give a dozen cave hobbyists and small-business owners a crash course in do-it-yourself anaesthesiology.

If anyone dies—and many divers think they will be lucky to save two or three of the kids—Dr. Harry will bear much of the burden. He is not licensed to practice medicine in Thailand, let alone teach other foreigners to practice. Though Thailand and Australia have offered some assurance that he won’t suffer legal consequences for his young patients’ probable deaths, a conscience and a name are not so easily protected.

Cave divers are solitary creatures, Dr. Harry will later say to the cameras he normally avoids. And as he instructs laymen how to sedate a bunch of boys in the dark before dragging them through a flooded, stalactite-strewn tunnel, Dr. Harry is very alone.

He thinks the drugs might help some children survive. He’s going to try, anyway. That’s the plan. But you never know.

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