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volume 15
october 2012

The death of a policeman


  Or, what the media (don't) tell you about alcoholism
by Hans Durrer
  2010: A Swiss high official struggles with an alcohol problem. After he commits suicide, his direct superior sends out a press statement, declaring that this problem has never hindered or even influenced the man in his professional duties. It's important in this respect, she stresses, not to overstep the line between work and private life. As if, Hans Durrer comments, alcoholism is some kind of leisure activity. This case, he adds, is exemplary for the general public denial of the realities of alcoholism and the wishfull thinking about its remedies, we observe in the media.

"An alcohol problem." On Tuesday, 26 January 2010, one day before the opening of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, Markus Reinhardt, 61, the head of police of the Swiss canton of Graubünden and chief of security at the WEF, was found dead in his hotel room. He had killed himself with his service weapon.

Markus Reinhardt had had "an alcohol problem" for quite some years, his superiors knew about it. His direct boss, the director of the Department of Justice, Barbara Janom Steiner, stated during a press conference: "His alcohol problems never affected his work."

Now the media became active in their typical fashion.

The Tages-Anzeiger in Zurich interviewed Roberto Zalunardo, the Secretary General ad interim of the Association of Swiss Police Chiefs, who said that these chiefs are under a lot of pressure, that it is very lonely at the top and that they need of course to be able to deal with all that. The reader was left with the impression that the ones who were not able to deal with this kind of pressure might turn to alcohol.

  Then, the Aargauer-Zeitung interviewed the former chief of police of the Canton Aargau, Léon Borer, who said that Reinhardt's "alcohol problem" had been known for several years and that "the man could have been saved." How this could have been accomplished, he did not elaborate on.
  And then, on 19 February 2010, the Tages-Anzeiger ran a story that challenged the view of Reinhardt's boss, Janom Steiner, that his alcoholism had not affected his job performance by citing several incidences — he had shown up intoxicated at work, had driven his car under the influence of alcohol, he was involved in a car accident and had seen to it that there were no offical records etc. etc.
  But let me stop here. For we all know this kind of story, don't we? The government officials give you their lines, some brave journalists make efforts to unmask what they perceive to be a cover-up, and sometimes the truth does prevail ...
  Well, this is the usual government/media-theater and the problem with it is that we are supposed to take it seriously. Let me elaborate: The government of Graubünden said, among other things, that "it thought it important to distinguish between work performance and private life." No one in the press questioned this work/private life distinction. If however Mr. Reinhardt really was an alcoholic (and it surely looks that way) then such a distinction is ludicrous because an alcoholic too often cannot control his impulses (and not only when it comes to alcohol) — and that does not depend on whether he or she is at work or not.
  So what did the media do? (by the way, no, I did not check whether all the media performed in exactly the same way). They tried to challenge the claim that Mr. Reinhardt's job performance was impeccable ... and in so doing fell for the trap that the government had laid out for them: the totally absurd distinction between work life and private life, that is.

Powerless therapies. An alcoholic is an alcoholic is an alcoholic. And that means that too often he cannot control his impulses (and that is not limited to drinking) — whether he is at work or at home. In addition, and this makes him especially unpredictable, he's the typical Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde kind: most of the time he's totally in control of himself until, all of a sudden, he completely loses it.

An alcoholic is dis-eased, in all aspects of his life. Everybody knows that. So why then do governments and media offer us such an absurd spectacle and act as if a dictinction can be made between private and professional life? Because they do what we all do: they rationalise their behaviour, justify their acts and their non-acts; they pretend to have under control what can't be controlled. Because to live with the truth seems unbearable. And when it comes to addicition, the truth is this: we do not know what triggers it, we do not know how to stop it, we are mostly powerless against it.

  If an alcoholic remains sober after treatment, therapists believe that the treatment has been successful; if an alcoholic however relapses, he is considered unfit for therapy. Fact is that nobody can really say why some (estimates range from seven to seventeen percent) can stop their drinking and others can't.
  Established therapies assume that understanding the causes of our acts might lead to behaviour change. If I know why I drink I can influence my drinking. This is wishful thinking for every cause that I will find (that I like, that pleases me) can be a cause for drinking as well as for non-drinking. Which is why in AA they say that there are exactly seven reasons why somebody drinks: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday.
  "There is no general agreement about the nature, cause, or treatment of alcoholism," Arnold M. Ludwig (The Alcoholic's Mind) states and the adds: "What is an alcoholic? Where does one draw the line between problem drinking and alcoholism, between alcohol dependence and addiction? Is alcoholism a disorder or a collection of disorders? Ist it a moral failing, a bad habit, or a disease? Do alcoholics have distincts personality features? Is alcoholism hereditary or learned? Does excessive drinking represent a symptomatic expression of an underlying conflict or is it the primary problem itself? Which treatment approach, if any, is most effective? Who is best qualified to help? The question can go on and on. There are no scientific answers."
  It cannot be proven whether therapy works — by a cause-and-effect methodology, that is. That however does not mean that therapy does not work. The fact that miracles can't be proven does not mean that miracles do not exist, it only means that the accepted means of proof are useless. Besides, therapy helps the therapists to have work and earn money. By the way, good therapists know that when their patients are getting better they are sometimes witnessing a miracle of which the Senegalese Wolof say, "nit nit ay garabam," man is man's medicine.

Created facts. That the boundaries between propaganda and journalism are blurred is well known. Also, that lots of journalists are seldom more than propagandists. The problem is that they do not know it, that they are not aware of it.

When Brian Eno first visited Russia, in 1986, he made friends with Sacha, a musician whose father had been Brezhnev's personal doctor: "One day we were talking about life during "the period of stagnation" — the Brezhnev era. "It must have been strange being so completely immersed in propaganda," I said. "Ah, but there is the difference. We knew it was propaganda," replied Sacha. "That is the difference. Russian propaganda was so obvious that most Russians were able to ignore it. They took it for granted that the government operated in its own interests and any message coming from it was probably slanted — and they discounted it."

  "We decide something, put it out there and wait a while in order to see what will happen. If there won't be a big outcry and no resistance, because most do not understand what has been decided, then we continue — step by step, until there's no more going back," Jean-Claude Juncker, an influential European politician from Luxemburg is quoted in Eva Herman's "Die Wahrheit und ihr Preis" (The Price of Truth). This is not only how facts ("fact" stems from the Latin "facere" = to make) are created, this is also how the agendas are set that invariably get picked up and propagated by the media.
  Let's get practical:
  Everybody believes that for alcoholics treatment ist better than punishment, This is due to the combined propaganda of psychologists and journalists. In the case of psychologists the reason is obvious — they have to make a living; in the case of journalists it can be explained with their pack-mentality. Moreover, as the linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum stated: "Once the public has decided to accept something as an interesting fact, it becomes almost impossible to get the acceptance rescinded. The persistent interestingness and symbolic usefulness overrides any lack of factuality."
  This does not mean that punishment is preferable to treatment; this means that whoever believes that treatment might be the solution has very probably a too grand idea of what treatment can do for it is a field full of paradoxes and contradictions. No wonder if you consider the following (from Arnold M. Ludwig's The Alcoholic Mind):
  • "Hitting bottom" is presumed to be a necessary step for recovery. even though being in dire straits, for all other illnesses, usually indicates a poor rather than favourable diagnosis.
  • In many hospital treatment settings, alcoholics are immediately discharged from the program if they are presumed to be uncooperative, unmotivated, setting poor examples for others, or if they are found to be intoxicated or drinking on the premises. In other words, they are not regarded as suitable for treatment if they show evidence of their sickness; namely, an inability to control their drinking. The catch-22 is that they must remain sober in order to receive help.
  • Alcoholics are regarded as "sick" — at least for purposes of hospitalization or treatment — but society tends to hold them responsible for their transgressions or crimes.
  • Because alcoholism is regarded as a "disease," certain therapeutic agencies do not hold alcoholics responsible for the harm caused by past drinking, but they do regard them as responsible for their present and future behaviors, an important and interesting distinction. Alcoholism is the only "disease" for which communion with a Higher Power is regarded by many as an essential element for recovery. Even physicians who are otherwise wary of the role of religion in medicine and rely primarily on drugs and procedures of proven, scientific merit for the treatment of serious illnesses, endorse participation in Alcoholics Anonymous, which has a strong spiritual emphasis, as an important component of therapy.
  • Alcoholism is a "disease" in which characteristic symptoms, such as urges and cravings to drink, can appear mysteriously at certain times, for example, during evenings and weekends, and be absent at others, as at work or at church. With the exception of other addictions, what medical diseases are so dependent on the mental expectations of the sufferers and the physical settings in which they exist?
  Given this, it is difficult to imagine a more ignorant reaction than the one of the government of Graubünden. It apparently thought it sufficient that the head of police had agreed to measures set out by a medical doctor in order to "make Reinhardt master of his problem." The media, in their usual fashion, saw to it that this ignorance was properly disseminated.
  PS: In March 2000, Markus Reinhardt had ordered a finishing shot aimed at a young man who had been shooting at random on people on the streets of Chur, the capital of Graubünden. As a consequence, Reinhardt was indicted for willful homicide — he was later acquitted. The Süddeutsche Zeitung commented on 27 January 2010: "This finishing shot has never left him, said his longtime companion, national congressman Pius Segmüller to the tabloid Blick: "Since then he had certain problems. In the end it was all too much for him."
  2012 © Hans Durrer / Soundscapes