What emotionally disturbed children taught me about world politics

Posted: Jan 02, 2006 9:05 AM
It was the headline that did it: “Hussein dwells on own predicament, not on testimony.” I’m thinking, I know this guy. He sounds a lot like some of the kids I’ve seen in my years around the foster care system. This guy is a socio-path, most probably with reactive attachment disorder.

Far too many people treat him as if he were the guy next door, who just happens to run a third world dictatorship. But he isn’t. Normal people don’t aspire to run third world dictatorships. And normal modes of dealing with him will not get you what you expect or want.

The classic case of attachment disorder is a child without a conscience, with no capacity for empathy with other people. What causes it? Typically, the attachment disordered child had his primary attachment with his mother disrupted during infancy. Infants normally become aware of other people as their mothers pick them up, rock them, feed them, and meet their needs. In the process, the child comes to make the deep connection that human contact assures his survival. This initial bond forms the foundation for the later development of the conscience.

According to Karl Zinsmeister’s Boots on the Ground, Saddam’s father abandoned him before he was born. His mother went to her brother’s house near Tikrit to give birth, and then abandoned the baby, leaving him to be raised by his uncle’s family.

What are these kids like? Kids with reactive attachment disorder are exquisitely sensitive to the slightest injury to themselves, and completely oblivious to any harm they inflict on others. Listen to this account of Saddam’s trial: “Three witnesses testified about abuse they ... suffered in Hussein’s jails. Speaking from behind a curtain to conceal their identities, they gave long and chilling accounts of beatings and deprivation.

Hussein appeared more concerned with his own plight.”

This kind of child does whatever he thinks he can get away with, no matter the cost to other people. They lie if they think it is advantageous to lie. They steal if they can get away with it.

Think of the billions Saddam and his cronies siphoned from the Oil for Food program. Normal people can barely imagine stealing on that scale. But an attachment disordered child has to be monitored every minute. (Experienced and savvy parents call it, “line of sight supervision.” ) So because the world assumed Saddam was a normal guy, we set up the Oil for Food program without properly monitoring it. To add insult to injury, Saddam had the nerve to blame the embargo for starving Iraqi children, when he himself could readily have fed his people. That is chutzpah far beyond the imagination of a normal person.

These children often become sophisticated manipulators. Even if the child is eventually adopted by loving and competent parents, the behaviors may continue. Their adoptive parents are beside themselves over their child’s destructive, sneaky and manipulative behavior.

We once did therapeutic respite care for a deeply disturbed 6 year-old boy who had been driving his parents crazy. He came to our house to do chores, while his parents got a much needed break from the constant supervision he required. He was pleasant and obedient, as we expected he would be. He spent the day helping us plant strawberries. A day after he left, however, we discovered a strange smell coming from the bathroom: he had urinated down the hot air register. Superficially charming, ostensibly compliant, and very sneaky.

Remember how Saddam enchanted gullible western journalists? Remember Saddam Hussein playing cat and mouse with Hans Blix? Perfectly normal behavior for a socio-path.

A seriously attachment disordered child will show no regret at having hurt another person, or may offer perfunctory apologies. He may find it fun to torture animals.

Saddam’s sadism was legendary. Evidently, he found it fun to put people through plastic shredders. He even began taking his son Uday to observe torture sessions when the child was ten.

The disturbed children I have seen are difficult and scary enough for anyone to have to deal with. Imagine one of these children grown up. Let him run a country. Allow him to be unaccountable to anyone. What you’ll get is Saddam’s Iraq. The world would be way ahead if our opinion-leaders had some remote understanding of the kind of person they’re dealing with.

In next week’s column, I’ll tell you how to deal with attachment disordered children, and what that has to do with how we ought to treat Saddam. But for now, just realize his thirty years of recreational torture is not the behavior of a normal person. Normal methods will do nothing to discourage future sociopaths, or to adequately repair the harm this one has caused.