Monthly Archives: June 2019

I was a psychiatrist in post-9/11 New York. Patients lied all the time about that day.

Yes it was a historic, cataclysmic mass murder that claimed 3,000 lives, but New York was a huge city with millions of people.

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I could understand people saying they lived near the buildings, witnessed the horrible collapse, inhaled the burning chemical toxic smoke afterward or even that they knew survivors. I went on a date with a guy who had just missed being on the flight that crashed in Pennsylvania. So coincidences weren’t impossible.

But oftentimes the stories didn’t hold up. One had a tale about a grown child recovering in a burn unit, but the hospital he was at kept changing each time she told it. When I called the most recent hospital she’d mentioned, they had no record of her son. Another patient claimed to have had parents on one of the planes that crashed, but later admitted it wasn’t true. My cynicism started to creep forth. I began calling it to myself the “9/11 sign” – anyone with a report of a 9/11 death in their history was likely seeking some sort of secondary gain, at best in the form of greater sympathy in the face of a multitude of other tough psychosocial stressors in their lives, or at worst, to get controlled substances or even to apply for special 9/11 benefits.

So I was not shocked to hear comedian and actor Steve Rannazzisi reveal he lied about having escaped the twin towers that day. I also wasn’t shocked by the otherwise outrageous tale of Tania (Alicia Esteve) Head, the former president of the World Trade Center Survivors Network who wasn’t even in United States during the attacks but maintains she was one of the few who had escaped above the floor directly hit by a plane.

We can’t know Rannazzisi’s exact motive for lying (indeed, he claims to not know either), but his lie does seem to have helped jump-start his career, if only by setting him apart. In psychiatry, we classify the older concept of “pathological lying” into two main camps: conscious vs. unconscious motivation for lying. Patients are clearly aware of the lying itself and highly manipulative in their actions, but their motivations for doing so can vary.

Conscious lying, termed “malingering” in psychiatry, is known more commonly as “con man” behavior and is sometimes related to antisocial personality disorder. It’s done for clear and conscious secondary gain, usually monetary, such as disability payments, drugs or “three hots and a cot”- for homeless people who in desperation lie about being suicidal to get admitted to a hospital. Rannazzisi seems to fall into this category, since his claims helped get attention to spark his budding acting and comedic career after he moved to Los Angeles shortly after the attacks. He continued to make claims about escaping the towers in interviews as recently as 2009.

You also have the “unconsciously” motivated liars suffering from factitious disorders, in which people feign symptoms, either mental or physical, in order to play “the sick role.” One extreme form of this disorder is Munchausen’s Syndrome, in which a person, sometimes with some education or training in health sciences, intentionally falsifies medical illness in themselves, or worse, in their children, in order to receive care and attention. Milder forms of factitious disorder include people who develop pseudoseizures, paralyzed limbs or other somatic issues, often manifesting from underlying hidden trauma or unspeakable emotions. There is also “pseudologia fantastica,” literally fantasy fake words, where people feel compelled to rattle off extremely detailed, fantastical stories about themselves that are untrue.

The “unconscious” motivation usually is related to strong unmet needs during childhood development, such as neglect or abuse, leading to an ongoing drive to seek forms of care and affection even in self-destructive or manipulative ways. It seems Tania Head might fall into this category, since she reportedly came from a very wealthy and noted family in Spain; she had no real need for money when she advocated for survivors. She developed a close cadre of fellow survivor friends. But there is the issue of fame.

9/11 was a game-changer for the American psyche and as such, might have become a lightning rod for the particular “sympathy” lies it garnered. No other event has inspired so many false claims among my patients. And people of all stripes and socioeconomic classes seemed to sense the power lurking behind that type of attention, that kind of historic relevancy. It’s the power of infamy.

For the true victims of the attacks and their bereaved, the reverence and awe is, to me, fully justified. There was also something elegiac and beautiful about the way Americans came together those shocked and mournful weeks after the attacks, something in our character we didn’t know we had.

But the dark side of that awe and reverence are people who wish to ride the coattails of that sympathy, and the ennobling force of people’s generosity. We shouldn’t necessarily just feel enraged by these individuals (although it certainly is tempting.) These are usually ultimately sad, lonely, empty people who capitalize on this unprecedented capacity for charity. And maybe there is something to be said for how our individualistic society does leave many neglected souls to grow up unsupported and desperate, in emotionally and financially broken families and environments. That our period of momentary closeness quickly dissipated into our regular grumbling, busy, self-centered ways, leaving these lost souls at the edges to clamor for these scraps of love and support. Fame, as found by Head and Rannazzisi, is a quick, powerful way to garner that love and support.

To his credit, Rannazzisi has come clean at great cost to his reputation and appears in his statements to exhibit remorse. Typically malingering and factitious lying, either from outright sociopaths or from factitious patients who exhibit the classic symptom of “la belle indifference,” do not come with much insight or regret. “For many years, more than anything,” Rannazzisi said in a statement, “I have wished that, with silence, I could somehow erase a story told by an immature young man. It only made me more ashamed.” For him, perhaps the pull of fame was too much for a young guy looking for his big break. 9/11 was the sure thing.

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Jean Kim is a writer and Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at George Washington University.

Nebraska lawmakers abolish the death penalty, narrowly overriding governor’s veto

The narrow vote in Lincoln on Wednesday made Nebraska the first state in two years to formally abandon the death penalty, a decision that comes amid a decline in executions and roiling uncertainty regarding how to carry out lethal injections.

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Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts had been a vocal critic of the bill before he vetoed it on Tuesday afternoon, calling it “cruel” to the relatives of the victims of people sentenced to death in a letter to the legislature.

The state’s lawmakers voted last week to abolish the death penalty, passing the measure with enough support to override a veto that Ricketts had said was coming.

In the unicameral Nebraska legislature, it takes 30 of the 49 senators to override the veto. Last week, 32 senators voted to repeal the death penalty. A spokesman for Ricketts said that he had been traveling the state to visit senators in an effort to sustain his veto.

Because an override involves repudiating the governor, it is “a very different vote,” said State Sen. Colby Coash, a Republican who co-sponsored the repeal bill.

“I knew it was tenuous at best. It went down to the end,” Coash said in a telephone interview after the override passed. “I knew it was going to be difficult.”

On Wednesday, 30 senators voted to override Ricketts’s veto. Ricketts condemned the decision, releasing a statement thanking everyone who voted to sustain his veto by name.

“My words cannot express how appalled I am that we have lost a critical tool to protect law enforcement and Nebraska families,” Ricketts said in the statement. “While the legislature has lost touch with the citizens of Nebraska, I will continue to stand with Nebraskans and law enforcement on this important issue.”

The Nebraska’s passage was unusual, because while numerous states have abolished or halted capital punishment in recent years, they have generally been more politically blue. Nebraska, meanwhile, is as red as it gets, and the legislature is largely conservative. The last conservative state to abolish the death penalty was North Dakota in 1973.

A majority of Americans support the death penalty — a level of support that has been falling consistently for two decades — but that sentiment is much stronger among Republicans than Democrats. Capital punishment is supported by more than three-quarters of Republicans, but it is opposed by a majority of Democrats.

Some lawmakers in Nebraska offered a conservative argument for repealing the death penalty there, painting it as an example of government waste. Other lawmakers said they supported the bill for religions reasons or because of cases where people were wrongly convicted.

“I’ve said frequently, if any other program was as inefficient and as costly as this has been, we would’ve gotten rid of it a long time ago,” Coash said after the legislature approved it last week.

Nebraska has not executed an inmate since 1997. It currently has 10 inmates on death row; there were 11 inmates when the bill was passed last week, but the state Department of Corrections said that an inmate died on Sunday. Under the bill, these inmates will now get life sentences.

“This was the right people at the right time,” Coash said. “One of the arguments I continued to use is, this is a broken system. Had we executed somebody two years ago, I don’t think we would’ve been successful today. But it’s clear it was a broken system that was re-victimizing families, it was costing us money.”

Opponents of the repeal bill quickly promised action. State Sen. Beau McCoy, who voted to keep the death penalty, said after the override he would be forming a group aimed at a ballot initiative to let voters determine the death penalty’s fate.

“Those of us that fought very hard to keep the death penalty in place in Nebraska are disappointed, but we know this is just the beginning of a continued long discussion about this issue in our state,” McCoy, a Republican, said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

McCoy, who said he feels the death penalty is necessary to keep Nebraskans safe, said he believed before the vote that lawmakers would sustain the governor’s veto.

“It’s pretty clear in my mind that a majority of Nebraskans. . .favor keeping the death penalty,” McCoy said. “I think it’s tragic and unfortunate that a number of my colleagues today decided to go against the will of those Nebraskans.”

The override’s single-vote margin follows a recent trend of razor-thin votes on the death penalty: New Hampshire the last state in New England with the death penalty, almost abolished it last year, but the bill failed by a single vote. Earlier this year, Montana’s legislature deadlocked on a bill that would have banned the death penalty there.

Maryland was the last state to formally abolish the death penalty, abandoning it in 2013 and emptying its death row earlier this year.

More than a third of the states without the death penalty have banned it since 2007. And while 31 states and the federal government still have the death penalty, in reality only a small handful of states actually carry out executions. Last year, seven states carried out executions, about a third the number of states that executed inmates 15 years earlier, while the number of death sentences and executions have also dropped.

“What we’re seeing is a continuation of the trend in the United States, in which states, one by one, abolish the use of the death penalty,” Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said Wednesday. “And one by one, it comes into disuse.”

Dunham said that Nebraska’s decision offers a “road map that other states may follow.”

Some states have also halted the practice without formally abolishing it. Washington state announced a moratorium last year, while Pennsylvania’s governor suspended the death penalty there in February. Oregon’s new governor said this year she will keep that state’s moratorium in place.

Other states dealing with legal challenges or an ongoing shortage of lethal injection drugs have imposed their own delays, creating de facto moratoriums in some places. After Ohio adopted a new lethal injection policy this year, it pushed back its executions scheduled through January 2016. As a result, Ohio — among the most active modern death-penalty states — will go at least two years without any executions.

Georgia suspended executions after an issue with a drug it was going to use and has not announced plans to resume lethal injections. Tennessee canceled its scheduled executions through early next year to let a court consider challenges from inmates. And three states have called off executions until the U.S. Supreme Court announces its decision in a lethal injection case.

The federal government, meanwhile, has the death penalty, but it has a moratorium in place while it reviews its death penalty policy. The government also has no lethal injection drugs, which are much harder to get these days. And more than a quarter of a century after the federal death penalty statute was reinstated, the government has carried out three executions, the last in 2003.

Lethal injection remains the primary method of execution in the United States, but as the drug shortage has persisted, three states hoping to preserve capital punishment have changed their laws over the past year: Tennessee made the electric chair its backup method, Utah did the same thing for firing squads and Oklahoma said that nitrogen gas would be its second option.

Even as other states have struggled to obtain lethal injection drugs, Ricketts said before the death-penalty repeal bill passed the legislature that the state purchased the drugs needed to carry out an execution. The state corrections department has one drug already, and the other two drugs will arrive “in the near future,” according to Ricketts’s office.

Texas authorities warn that violence between biker gangs may continue

For nearly five decades, the Bandidos Motorcycle Club monopolized the Texas “bottom rocker,” a patch shaped like an inverted rainbow that states a biker’s claim to the Lone Star State.

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Smaller clubs also wore the Texas patch, but only with the Bandidos’ blessing. Until another club, the Cossacks, slapped the bottom rocker on their vests without permission. In that shadowy world, it was an unforgivable provocation.

After a series of smaller skirmishes, law enforcement officials say, all-out war finally erupted between the Bandidos and the Cossacks this past weekend in a shootout at a local sports bar that left nine dead, 18 injured and 170 bikers from both sides behind bars. On Tuesday, Waco police warned that Sunday’s carnage was probably just the beginning.

“In the gang world and in the biker world, that violence usually condones more violence,” Sgt. Patrick Swanton told reporters. “Is this over? Most likely not.”

A sense of threat continued to linger over Waco on Tuesday, particularly among the bartenders and waitresses who find themselves serving a lot of out-of-towners these days — and constantly on the lookout for telltale signs of gang affiliation. Sunday’s shootout was the worst outbreak of violence in Waco since the FBI siege of the Branch Davidian compound in 1993.

Meanwhile, authorities released the identities of the dead men, all bikers who died of gunshot wounds to the head, chest or neck, according to a preliminary autopsy report. They ranged in age from Matthew Mark Smith, 27, to Jesus Delgado Rodriguez, 65. A member of the Cossacks club said at least six of the dead were Cossacks.

In interviews and on social media, representatives of both clubs sought to deflect responsibility for the violence. A member of the Bandidos claimed in a statement that his club was attacked Sunday by the rival Cossacks. A member of the Cossacks said his club did no such thing.

“We just want to be left alone. We just claim we’re from Texas. Texas is our home. That’s all we do,” said the Cossack, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “They have a problem with the fact that we won’t bow down,” but “we did not start this. We did not go down there to start this.”

For months, however, trouble seemed inevitable, even to Texas law enforcement officials. Last spring, two Bandidos were charged with stabbing two Cossacks at an Abilene steakhouse. And on May 1, the Texas Department of Public Safety issued a bulletin warning that FBI agents in San Antonio had learned that the Bandidos were discussing “the possibility of going to war with Cossacks.”

The bulletin, obtained by the Dallas television station WFAA, detailed the reasons for the escalating tensions:

“Traditionally, the Bandidos have been the dominant motorcycle club in Texas, and no other club is allowed to wear the Texas bar without their consent,” the bulletin said. “If the club refuses, Bandidos members will attempt to remove the vest by force from the member.”

That appears to have been exactly what happened in March, when a group of Bandidos confronted a Cossack rider at a truck stop in rural North Texas. When the Cossack refused to remove the Texas rocker from his vest, he was attacked with a hammer and the Bandidos made off with his vest, the bulletin said.

“People will die for that patch once they get it,” said one central Texas biker who arrived at the sports bar Sunday just after the melee ended. He spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Wearing the Texas patch “was an outright provocation,” the biker said, adding that the Cossacks “were trying to buck the system that had been in place for 30 years.”

Whoever was to blame for the situation, the bulletin noted that “violence between members of the Bandidos and the Cossacks has increased in Texas with no indication of diminishing.”

The bulletin went on to describe the Bandidos as “one of the largest outlaw motorcycle groups in the United States and the largest outlaw motorcycle gang in Texas.” It described the Cossacks as “a national club with members in the east, north and west Texas.”

A recent Justice Department report on outlaw motorcycle gangs also warned that the Bandidos “constitute a growing criminal threat.”

Sunday’s regional meeting of the Texas Confederation of Clubs and Independents at the Twin Peaks sports bar was the match that ultimately lit the dry kindling. Meetings of the confederation, ostensibly a lobbying and biker rights group, are held regularly in various spots around the state.

But the confederation is dominated by the Bandidos. The Cossacks are not members. When the Bandidos insisted on holding Sunday’s meeting in Waco — a town the Cossacks consider their home turf — the stage was set for tragedy, gang experts and local bikers said.

The Cossacks crashed the meeting in force, Waco police said.

Both sides, however, were clearly prepared for violence, arriving with brass knuckles, knives, batons and firearms.

“If you know you are going into an area where another club has told you to [get out], do you want to go there with just your fists?” the Central Texas biker said.

Two days later, precisely what set off the fight remains unclear. Waco police said Tuesday that a rider’s foot had been run over the in the parking lot. But authorities have also pointed to an altercation between rival gangs in the Twin Peaks restroom.

Johnny Snyder, a rider with the Boozefighter’s Motorcycle Club in Waco, arrived at the restaurant just before the 1 p.m. meeting. The bar, which features barely clad waitresses, was packed with riders eating lunch and drinking beer. Snyder said he didn’t sense any tension when he stepped outside to smoke.

Then, “while I was standing outside, I heard a shot,” he said. “I ran away until the gunshots got quiet. Then I was told to get down on the ground by the police. And that’s what I did.”

The central Texas rider said his friends had parked their bikes in front of Twin Peaks when a single shot from a small-caliber weapon rang out from inside.

“It fell deathly quiet,” the rider said he was told. “Then all hell broke loose.”

Bikers and law enforcement offices are now bracing for what might come next.

“The police officers are probably right,” said the central Texas biker, who does not belong to either of the rival gangs. “This is not over. Retribution will happen. It may not be a public display like what happened at Twin Peaks. But the issues at hand will be taken care of.”

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Madigan is a freelance writer. Washington Post staff writer Mark Berman and research editor Alice Crites in Washington contributed to this report.

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Video: Not everyone who wears leathers while riding motorcycles is part of a gang like those who had a shootout outside a Waco, Texas, restaurant. PostTV explains what some of those patches on motorcycle jackets mean. (The Washington Post)

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5 myths about wildfires

1.

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Technology has changed the way we fight fires.

Air tankers dropping 11,000-gallon payloads of blood-red fire retardant on flames look great on the nightly news. So do drones mapping a fire’s active edges with infrared cameras. But the boots-on-the-ground work of stopping fires has changed little since 1910, when America started its grand experiment to remove wildfires from forests. That year, a blaze called the Big Burn scorched 3 million acres of prime timber across Idaho’s panhandle and into Montana, infuriating the U.S. Forest Service, whose income relied on leasing public lands to timber barons who wanted only green trees. In the wake of the Big Burn, the agency dedicated itself to dousing every spark in the forest. It cobbled together troops of young men and handed out shovels, axes and orders to clear flammable material around the perimeter of wildfires. Without fuel to burn, the fires stopped.

Over the next century, the agency modernized firefighting with surplus World War II equipment, including jeeps, helicopters and parachutes for smokejumpers. But the most effective weapon in the increasingly sophisticated arsenal remains the many thousands of young men and women who, each year, spend their summers removing flammable materials around wildfires with chainsaws and hand-held tools. So far, no technology has been able to replace human judgment and dexterity when it comes to culling potential kindling. “The fact of the matter remains you still have to engage the fire, and that means going in and building lines, often by hand,” says fire researcher Jim Cook.

2. Fires are bigger now than at any point in history.

It’s true that between 4 million and 10 million acres of forest burn each year, 40 percent more acreage than just 40 years ago. But today’s fire seasons — and even individual fires — are actually smaller than the historic norm. Before the 20th century, almost 30 million acres burned every year. The single biggest U.S. wildfire of the past 50 years, Arizona’s 2011 Wallow Fire, burned a whopping 500,000 acres, but there were at least five fires in the 19th century that blackened twice that many acres. Three of those were larger by a factor of five.

What’s different about today’s fires is the intensity with which they’re burning. One reason is that fire suppression has changed Western forests. Take the ponderosa stands of the Southwest: Historically, low-intensity blazes, ignited by lightning or indigenous peoples, burned every five to 10 years, thinning the forest of young saplings and brush and leaving just 150 large trees per acre. Today, in the absence of flames, those stands are choked with as many as 1,200 trees per acre — too thick to walk through without risking a branch in your eye.

Another reason is the warming climate. The average annual temperature is 1.7 degrees higher than the 20th-century average, and by the end of this century that number is forecast to climb an additional four to six degrees. The extra heat wicks water away from plants, drying them out and priming the forests for fire.

Scientists call the resulting breed of blaze “megafires,” which burn so intensely that firefighters have little hope of containing them. A few examples include Colorado’s 2012 Waldo Canyon Fire, which burned about 350 homes in Colorado Springs; the 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire, which torched 130 homes and killed 19 firefighters outside a small Arizona town; and New Mexico’s 2011 Las Conchas Fire, which burned about an acre of mature pines every second for 14 hours straight.

3. More firefighters and more air tankers can control wildfires

Last year, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsackannounced a larger firefighting fleet and an increased budget ($2.2 billion, up from $2.1 billion the year prior) for the Forest Service. California Gov. Jerry Brown has called for thousands of additional firefighters. Colorado has invested significant resources in a new aerial fleet, with a stated intent to suppress all blazes of a particular size.

The truth is that at a certain point, firefighters have as much ability to control a wildfire as the National Guard does to stop a hurricane. Recognizing when a fire has reached that point seems to be the trouble. Just 2 percent of the 50,000 to 90,000 fires that burn every year account for 98 percent of the combined $4.7 billion that fire agencies — federal, state, county and municipal — are estimated to spend fighting fires each summer. These cost-gobbling blazes almost always flare up near towns, as Washington’s Carlton Complex did last year when it blackened 256,000 acres near Pateros and Malott. Despite the best efforts of 3,000 firefighters and more than $23 million spent, it was the largest fire in Washington history and scorched almost 300 homes in just two unpredictable days. Sometimes, the safest thing firefighters and citizens can do is get out of the way, even if that means watching homes burn.

4.More wildfires mean more homes burned.

There are 70,000 communities, 1.1 million homes and almost $269 billion worth of propertyat very high risk of wildfire damage in the United States. By one estimate, less than 2 percent of those communities have done anything to prepare for the flames. Under current practices, more wildfires will menace these homes.

But certain strategies can mitigate the risk. From a planning perspective, communities can treat fires like floods by looking at fire-frequency maps to determine the places where homes are most likely to burn, a policy followed in Australia. Homeowners can create defensible space around their houses by using chainsaws and chippers to thin the forest near their property. The National Fire Protection Association found that homes with a fire-resistant roof and 30 feet of defensible space have an 80 percent chance of surviving a wildfire. During the tragic Yarnell Hill Fire, ranches built with fire-resistant materials and surrounded by defensible space survived 30-foot walls of flames while the homes around them burned.

5. Fires must be put out.

For the past 50 years, wildland firefighters have extinguished 98 percent of blazes within 24 hours of ignition. It has been a tough transition for the woods. In one way or another, most Western forests and the wildlife that lives within them evolved beside wildfires. Some extraordinary species of beetles breed only in the heat of fires, and hooved creatures graze on the grass that eventually grows in the wake of flames. The impossibly huge Sequoia redwoods of Yosemite National Park require extreme heat to germinate. Flames cause the trees’ cones to bloom like flowers, freeing the otherwise locked-away seeds to root in the fertile soil left behind by the burn.

Americans must learn to live with fires. It will take preparing homes and communities for the worst blazes, letting flames do the good work of thinning trees and intentionally igniting more fires when the time is appropriate. It took a century to remove fire from the landscape. It’ll take at least that long to teach people that the flames are not just something to fear.

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Dickman is the author of “On the Burning Edge.”