Friday, September 5, 2008

Psychologists and Torture

Originally published on 08/30/2008

FROM THE moment US military and civilian officials began detaining and interrogating Guantanamo Bay prisoners with methods that the Red Cross has called tantamount to torture, they have had the assistance of psychologists. This has been a source of anguish to many members of the profession, who want to join their colleagues in other professional organizations and draw a clear line against psychologists' involvement in interrogation of detainees.

Many psychologists fault their own professional organization, the American Psychological Association, for not taking a firmer stance and for not punishing association members who in the past have helped interrogators in using techniques like sleep deprivation to raise prisoners' stress levels or in finding their emotional weak points. When the association convened a task force on the subject in 2005, a majority of members turned out to have ties with the military or US intelligence.

In its defense, the association points to a current policy statement that prohibits "direct or indirect participation" in torture or "cruel, degrading, or inhuman treatment or punishment." The association should go further and forbid - as the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association have - any involvement at all by medical professionals in interrogation.

The circumstances in a place like Guantanamo are by their very nature abusive and should rule out psychologists' participation even in "good cop" questioning. Guantanamo-style interrogation is hard to square with the psychological association's ethics code: "Psychologists strive to benefit those with whom they work and take care to do no harm."

In the coming weeks, association members will vote on new leadership, and one candidate for president wants psychologists banned from participating in interrogations at US detention centers that violate human rights and do not adhere to the Geneva Conventions. Members are also voting on a resolution banning psychologists from working in such facilities "unless they are working directly for the persons being detained or for an independent third party working to protect human rights."

These votes are providing association members with a chance to end any ambiguity about their profession's abhorrence of abusive techniques. Many came out of the playbook of totalitarian states and could easily be used against US personnel in future clashes. Psychologists should leave no doubt they are opponents, and not enablers, of these methods.

SOURCE: Boston Globe

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