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.