No sooner had John Walker Lindh, the American who fought with the Taliban, returned to the land of his birth than a long-dormant word was summoned into popular use again. ''If he got involved in the Taliban,'' his mother said, ''he must have been brainwashed.'' The same excuse was offered for Richard Reid, the notorious ''shoe bomber.'' The mother of Zacarias Moussaoui, accused of helping to organize the 9/11 attacks, put it more bluntly: ''He was clearly brainwashed.'' And most recently, the story of the Jamaican teenager John Lee Malvo, whose father figure, John Allen Muhammad, isolated the boy and kept him on a strange regimen of crackers and honey, has become a Sunday-morning TV parable of brainwashing. How else could a mere boy be made to shoot at commuters' heads as mindlessly as he might pop tin cans off a fence?
Brainwashing is back. It's been a while since Americans have had to contend with the idea in part because its two most popular venues -- pulp fiction and academia -- discarded it years ago either as a plot device even more lame than amnesia or as just plain crummy science. These days, moviegoers watch the 1962 classic ''The Manchurian Candidate,'' in which the Chinese government brainwashes U.S. soldiers into becoming political assassins, primarily as kitsch. And among scholars, the idea of brainwashing was essentially discarded as a myth. What evidence was there that someone could be manipulated to do something that violates his core beliefs? The few scholars who clung to the brainwashing concept were forced to downsize the idea. Although they admitted a person couldn't be motivated to, say, commit violence simply because of psychological pressure, they pointed out that coercion could have a more subtle effect. Cult members considering quitting the group, for example, could be pressured into staying.
The courts have followed this academic reasoning. A former Moonie suing to get his trust fund back would most likely be able to claim that he was coerced. But courts so far have generally not embraced the argument that people can be programmed to commit crimes. Most people forget that brainwashing's most famous defendant, Patty Hearst, was found guilty and sent to prison.
The brainwashing idea straddles the arc of legitimacy between fact and fiction, existing more in the latter than the former. We all know that other people's minds can be influenced, but we naturally balk at the idea that a person can be mentally enslaved by another. Deep down, the argument touches upon the theological quarrel regarding free will and determinism. Can someone who is not already so inclined be made to fly a plane into a building, shoot a gun at fellow countrymen, set off a bomb on a plane or slaughter innocent folk pumping gas on the way to work? Can he really be brainwashed into doing it? As the cases of Moussaoui, Malvo and others proceed to trial, we may be pondering that question seriously as brainwashing once again departs the realm of kitsch for the courts.
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