Terrorism, Torture, PTSD and Radicalization



by Aaron Beatty

Dr. Stephen Xenakis, Brigadier General (Ret), USA is a Former Erikson Scholar at Austen Riggs.Erikson Scholar Brig. General (ret) Stephen Xenakis, MD spoke to an invited crowd of around 60 on Monday evening, August 10, 2015. The topic of his presentation was Up Close: Terrorism, Torture, PTSD and Radicalization. 

Dr. Xenakis began with gracious and heartfelt gratitude to Riggs, Medical Director/CEO Andrew J. Gerber, MD, PhD, Erikson Institute Director Jane G. Tillman, PhD, and others for welcoming him as an Erikson Scholar to Riggs. “I found this [Riggs] community much more than I thought it would be. … I can’t tell you what a great opportunity this has been for me” he stated. 

His presentation covered a lot of ground, from the work he has done as a defense expert on behalf of detainees in Guantanamo, to the findings of the Senate Intelligence Committee Study on CIA Detention and Interrogation Program released in 2014; from the PTSD suffered by both American soldiers and detainees to issues surrounding ISIS, radicalization and the ethics of law today. 

Dr. Xenakis’ nuanced and compassionate perspective on topics that are often flashpoints for disparate posturing and political grandstanding provided an opportunity for reflection on the very human and moral costs of war and our responsibility as mental health providers (of which the audience was largely comprised) or as citizens of the world. 

Dr. Xenakis also spoke of the importance of legislation in combating some of the mental health issues were are faced with today, not only as a result of military and intelligence activities, but also as a result of trauma in general. “Trauma is not just about Guantanamo and soldiers – it is in our cities, our communities and until we do something about it … we cannot have security here or abroad,” he stated, adding that the lack of a unified voice for mental health makes it difficult for legislators to take meaningful action. In light of that, Dr. Xenakis believes, “We need to take what we know, and what we understand, and lead.” 

Erikson Scholar Brig. General (ret) Stephen Xenakis, MD, Presents on Terrorism, Torture, PTSD and Radicalization.Remarking on the connections between his own work, the topics of the presentation and the work done at Riggs, Dr. Xenakis identified what he sees as a gap between scientific evidence and the work of the therapist that “is bridged by the skill set here [at Riggs].” Elaborating, he spoke of a former instructor who taught internists to “receive the patient’s history,” as opposed to “taking the patient’s history.” There is something important that happens in listening and receiving the rich narratives of patients, whatever it is that ails them. 

During a rich and informative question and answer period following the presentation, Dr. Xenakis fielded a question about the effects of torture on the torturers posed by former Medical Director/CEO Ed Shapiro, MD, (“there is a guilt they carry that is disabling”) and when asked by Erikson Institute Director Jane G. Tillman, PhD, for a dynamic formulation about why, when we know torture does not yield good information, it continues to be used, Dr. Xenakis responded, “Fear is perhaps the core dynamic; it is exploited. We haven’t developed a language or tactic to move on or move past it.” When asked by Director of Admissions Eric Plakun, MD, about whether this period in history is uniquely different, in relation to the use of torture, or if information is just more easily accessible, Dr. Xenakis didn’t see a uniqueness, but did acknowledge an increase in publicity and accessibility of information that he sees as an opportunity to have a conversation about “how destructive it is at an individual and group level.”

Look for more about Dr. Xenakis in the upcoming issue of the ARC News. If you are not on our mailing list, you can sign up here.

Watch Dr. Xenakis talk about understanding trauma and its effects.