The role of psychologists in torture

As a psychologist, I have been appalled by the complicity of some psychologists in torturing detainees in former President Bush’s “War on Terror.” How could it be that professionals trained to treat mental illness could be partners in a program to create mental illness? How could there be any debate on the issue, given the clearly stated ethical standards of Psychologists issued by the American Psychological Association (APA) which prohibit any abuse of people?

Apparently such a debate was alive and well when the Bush administration sought to enlist psychologists in their ghoulish activities.

According to Sheri Fink of ProPublica there was a secret listserv which started on April 22, 2005, to discuss psychologists’ role in torture. According to Fink’s paper, psychologists warned Bush administration officials as early as 2002 “against using potentially ineffective and dangerous interrogation techniques on detainees.”

However, these same psychologists also developed “harsh interrogation policies and practices” that they warned against.

There was even a debate as to whether psychologists should follow U.S. law, military regulations and/or international human rights standards.

The former-president of the APA, Gerald Koocher, wrote on July 30, 2005, “I have zero interest in entangling APA with the nebulous, toothless, contradictory and obfuscatory treaties that comprise ‘international law.’”

More recently, the APA has acted to ban psychologists from working in any national security detention centers “except in humanitarian roles.” A membership vote completed Sept. 15, 2008, revealed 8,702 votes in favor of a ban, 6,157 against and 15 abstentions.

Current APA President Alan E. Kazdin, Ph.D., acted to apprise the Bush administration of the change in APA policy and also reminded them of APA’s call for further investigations into abusive techniques used against detainees. President Obama has moved to close the facility at Guantanamo Bay where many of the abuses were perpetrated.

Many are breathing a sigh of relief as they realize how close this country came to being a sponsor of the state terrorism typically seen in fascist states.

James Thompson is a psychologist in Houston.