Psychologists equivocate on torture

I am a psychologist and I’m mad as hell about the recent decision by the American Psychological Association (APA) to continue to let psychologists collaborate with the CIA and the military in their torture of detainees at Guantanamo and other U.S. facilities.

The APA, representing 148,000 psychologists, held its annual convention in San Francisco in August. The organization voted on Aug. 19 to ban psychologists’ participation in torture, but rejected a measure to ban participation in interrogations.

The resolution against torture specifies techniques that the APA opposes, including mock executions, water-boarding, sexual humiliation, induced hypothermia, hooding, using dogs to threaten and intimidate suspects, and sleep deprivation. This is the first time on record that the association has been specific about which techniques are banned.

However, some argue that the resolution mirrors language in the Military Commissions Act that creates a loophole permitting the CIA to continue abusive techniques which could include inducing hallucinations in normal people. They also point out that psychologists are providing “medical supervision” during these interrogation techniques, thus giving them legitimacy in the public eye. One could say psychologists’ participation is essentially a kind of scab labor.

The American Medical Association and American Psychiatric Association have barred their members from participating in these interrogations.

Mary Pipher, psychologist and bestselling author, decided to return her APA Presidential Citation award in protest. She wrote in her letter to the APA, “I have struggled for many months with this decision and I make it with pain and sorrow. … I do not want an award from an organization that sanctions its members’ participation in the enhanced interrogations at CIA ‘black sites’ and at Guantanamo.”

The Houston Chronicle editorialized, “Psychologists have no place assisting interrogations at places such as Guantanano Bay.”

Why would the world’s largest organization of psychologists allow its members to participate in interrogations involving techniques that any person who was subjected to them would readily identify as torture? If these psychologists were brought before an international court on human rights, would they defend themselves by saying, “I was just following orders”?

The CIA and U.S. military employ a large number of psychologists. In fact, psychology got its start as a profession in this country during World War II, when psychologists were trained to treat soldiers with “battle fatigue,” now known as post-traumatic stress disorder. The VA system has been one of the largest employers of psychologists and has provided the most training sites in this country. The CIA also contracts with psychologists, including a past president of the APA, Joseph Matarazzo. The CIA and military have been the source of extraordinary funds for psychology research in universities over the years.

As is usually the case, if you follow the money you find out why psychologists are collaborating in these Nazi-like techniques.

I became a psychologist for the same reason I think most psychologists do who endure the rigorous training and poverty involved in graduate school education — I wanted to help people suffering from mental problems. For this reason, I find it disgusting that some members of my profession are collaborating with the CIA and military in activities that create mental problems in normal people.

It is no secret that torture was widely practiced during the Nazi Reich. Torture is terrorism practiced on an individual level. The Bush administration has so perverted our society that evidence of creeping fascism can be detected even among psychologists.

Let this be the red flag that alerts all of us that a united effort is needed to oppose the Bush administration authorization and promotion of terrorist interrogation methods. Religious leaders, progressive organizations, human rights organizations, organized labor and yes, even psychologists should come together to lead this struggle.

Paul Hill (phill1917 @comcast.net) is a psychologist and activist in the Houston area.