Bad Press, Artx and the Rehabilitation of Terrorists

I suppose some bad press about art therapy is kind of a good thing. Finally it’s big enough to be on people’s radar.

Yesterday, it was reported that two released Guantanamo prisoners who received rehabilitation in Saudi Arabia, which included art therapy, were behind the terrorist plot to blow up a plane headed from Amsterdam to Detroit on 12/25/2009. This maybe the same program that I blogged about in early 2008, or something similar.

Not only is the media putting down the idea of using art therapy for the rehabilitation of terrorists, for example ABC news stating,

“Saudi officials concede its program has had its “failures” but insist that, overall, the effort has helped return potential terrorists to a meaningful life.

One program gives the former detainees paints and crayons as part of the rehabilitation regimen.”

But art therapy is also being talked about in the blogosphere. For example, Ann Althouse, the prominent law-professor-blogger, jokes about the use of art therapy and states,

“Whether it was weak art or strong art, it was not something to be prescribed to turn men away from terrorism.”

Do terrorists who underwent art therapy treatment, and still tried to blow up a plane, prove the failure of art therapy? After re-reading the original article I posted from CBC news, I noticed that art therapy was a part of an experimental rehabilitation program that included other types of therapy. I’m certainly not an expert on the rehabilitation of terrorists, but this program was taking on a huge task that has not been undertaken before (hence the term “experiment” in the beginning of the article). It seems as if its goal was to change the deep-seated ideology of people who harbor extreme and violent views and then return them to the same communities that supported this view to begin with. It’s like sending the rehabed alcoholic back in the community without addressing the social aspects of their behavior. Perhaps it’s even dangerous for these “ex”-terrorists to stop conforming with their “ex”-social community. I’m just speculating. As I said, I’m no expert on such matters, but my feeling is that the failure of this program has little to do with art therapy and its efficacy. Rather, it has everything to do with the nature of forcing ideological change, which is unlikely to happen even when one considers the power of art.

Making art therapy out to be child’s play is a misrepresentation of what art therapy is. Crayons and paint can be powerful tools for creation, exploration and self-transformation. Is it a guaranteed cure for all that ails you? Can it make the suicide bomber into Mother Theresa? Of course not. And guess what: any (therapy) program that offers utopia is trying to fool you.

Now—if only we could work on getting more art therapy research out there, so we can actually talk about its efficacy in a meaningful way.

4 Replies to “Bad Press, Artx and the Rehabilitation of Terrorists”

  1. Eloquent response, Liz, but in this forum aren’t you just preaching to the choir? I only happened to read this because a friend who’s an art therapist became a fan of Art Therapy Alliance and clicked out of curiosity. Your words need to be an op-ed in the NY Times or other major outlets, the places where art therapy was ridiculed and spoken of in a derogatory way. I’m not an art therapist but have been its beneficiary. Also in PR once upon a time and I know this … you can let others define you or you can set about to define your business for others. Art therapy is, indeed, new to many and needs eloquent spokepeople (like you) now that it has some national attention, even if it’s bad in this instance. All that you say about studying long-term efficacy and the challenge of working with terrorists (is ANY discipline doing this with any success?) is critically important.

  2. Thank you Nicole and Susan!

    You bring up an excellent point, Susan. I never considered trying to search out new venues to retort the media’s views on art therapy. You’ve inspired me to get my opinion out more. Thank you!

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