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Steve Hansen: How otherwise good people can commit heinous crimes

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Posted: Thursday, November 21, 2013 12:00 am

How does someone who is devoutly religious commit evil acts that get innocent people killed? How can people who believe in tolerance act hateful and vindictive to those with whom they disagree? What about those who promote the natural selection of Darwinism, but at the same time strive to protect the weak?

In psychology, these examples come under a phenomenon known as “compartmentalization.” This is when people separate thoughts and feelings that are incompatible with each other. The defense of rationalization is often used to keep these incompatibilities isolated.

While everyone uses compartmentalization from time to time, there are extreme examples throughout history. One of the most famous is former FBI agent Robert Hanssen.

For 22 years, Hanssen gave the Soviets many of America’s most sensitive secrets — thus creating untold and irreparable damage to our national security. What made this case different from other spy cases was his incredible use of compartmentalization.

For one thing, the famous spy was an Opus Dei Catholic. This is an institution of Catholicism which emphasizes God in daily life. Regular church attendance, study and daily devotions are an integral part of this faith. Hanssen also encouraged FBI subordinates who were Catholic to follow his example.

Yet he seemed unconcerned about undercover agents needlessly killed by his acts of disloyalty.

He was also a devoted family man and considered a good husband and father. Yet he rationalized away harm, as well as the pain and suffering that would eventually bring unmitigated shame upon his family.

At the same time, Hanssen had a stripper girlfriend. He also set up a video camera while having sex with his wife so one of his best friends could watch live performances.

He was not a political ideologue and did not have any love or respect for the values of the Soviet Union. Hanssen liked money, but that was not his primary motivation.

He did not drink, use street drugs, gamble or have large amounts of debt.

So what created a personality that built walls around so many different values and emotions?

Theories vary, but one possibility is the belief these individuals have about themselves.

Although others may see them as successful, they usually do not. When people develop compartmentalization as a defense, there is a high probability that an emotionally or physically abusive parent helped create a personality with disconnected emotions and values.

These individuals rationalize to themselves that they are smarter than most and are unappreciated by peers and superiors. This seems to be the motivator in Hanssen’s case. He was upset that the FBI did not take his ideas for improvement of the agency seriously. That created a revenge issue. It was also his belief that the FBI was so stupid, he would never get caught. The clever spy was almost correct.

In 2001, Hanssen pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.

Today, he spends his 23 hours of his life in an isolated cell with no visitors other than his wife and attorney.

While compartmentalization is a common human trait, extreme cases can obviously be harmful to one’s self as well as others. Examples of this can be found in some individuals with concrete religious, political or other foundations of philosophical idealism that can only function by isolating conflicting beliefs and emotions.

Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer and retired psychotherapist.

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