Science Watch

The day after his inauguration as president, Barack Obama announced his intention to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba within the year and ordered that all detainees' cases be reviewed. Officials predict the review will bump up the number of prisoners released from the facility, which at press time sat at about 420. Those who do get cleared for release will join the hundreds of detainees who remain in detention until a country agrees to accept them.

It's an environment that breeds resentment and anger and, consequently, the potential for former detainees to seek revenge by joining or supporting terrorist outfits, says revenge researcher Michele Gelfand, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, College Park. She's one of a growing number of researchers looking into what motivates people to get even and what we can do to stem vengeful feelings.

"We are concerned that the mistreatment in prisons can create even more radicalization in detainees," she says.

If detainees have suffered abuse at their captors' hands, Gelfand says, once they're released they're liable to join or financially assist one of the numerous anti-American groups in the Middle East or a cell operating abroad. At the very least, they'll harbor negative feelings about their interactions with Americans, which contributes to anti-American sentiments in their region of the world.

In January, the Pentagon released a statement that 18 former detainees had returned to the battlefield or participated in terrorist-supporting activities.

To curb revenge tendencies in people like the to-be-released Guantanamo detainees, Gelfand and her colleagues have presented their research at conferences around the world to promote "de-radicalization," a process that seeks to engage detainees in religious discussions about revenge and violence, and provide psychological support to them and their families.

They are currently evaluating de-radicalization programs in the Philippines and Thailand to determine whether the programs successfully reduce revenge among terrorist detainees. Winning the trust of these detainees and reintegrating them into society is one of the war's greatest challenges, Gelfand says.

—M. Price