Psychologists and the Torture Question | Harper's Magazine

Sign in to access Harper’s Magazine

Need to create a login? Want to change your email address or password? Forgot your password?

  1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
  2. Select Email/Password Information.
  3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.

Locked out of your account? Get help here.

Subscribers can find additional help here.

Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!

Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
Subscribe for Full Access
Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
[No Comment]

Psychologists and the Torture Question


A few weeks ago, I reported that two major professional organizations—the lawyers (ABA) and the psychologists (APA)–appeared poised to condemn the Bush Administration’s torture policies and to stake out principled positions against their members’ collaboration in these practices. Well they did, sort-of.

The 400,000-member American Bar Association passed a resolution which was unequivocal and very strong in its terms. They condemned President Bush’s July 20, 2007 Executive Order, calling it illegal, and they called on Congress to overturn it through legislation. They even committed their resources to lobbying for Congressional action on the issue. The vote in the House of Delegates was 545 to 1. Rather lopsided.

However, the American Psychological Association took a far more nuanced position. They condemned some of the techniques that Bush authorized as “torture.” That was a step forward. But they turned down a resolution counseling members to refrain from involvement in highly coercive interrogation process, largely on the strength of members associated with the Department of Defense who argued that the presence of psychologists was essential to prohibit abuse. Indeed, Agence France Press captioned its report this way: “US psychologists limit roles in torture of military prisoners”. I think this is far from commentary. AFP got the story just right.

The Hippocratic Oath, sworn by medical professionals from the 4th century BCE forward, requires the professional to swear with respect to all his subjects that “I will keep them from harm and injustice.” It seems clear that, in the thinking of the APA, some footnotes to this oath are necessary. In particular, APA appears to believe that these ethical rules really shouldn’t stand in the way of lucrative contracts with the Department of Defense, especially when DOD promises to give psychologists the power to prescribe medications—something denied to psychologists by state licensing authorities. You really can’t look at the APA conduct and escape the conclusion that the leadership of this organization is, plain and simple, in the thrall of the Defense Department.

The Houston Chronicle, which is by and large a pro-Bush Administration newspaper, took a look at the goings on at the APA and came away with a distinct sensation of nausea. In an editorial captioned “Human Wrongs,” they put their finger on what is, at its core, an institutional abdication of ethics:

The worst argument for psychologists’ presence at interrogations comes from U.S. Army Col. Larry James, director of the psychology department of a military medical center,” the Chronicle went on to explain. ‘If we lose psychologists from these facilities, people are going to die,’ he said at the APA meeting. Psychologists, James suggested, can rein [in] or report overzealous violators.

Any interrogation system that teeters so close to atrocities needs more than a psychologist. It requires thorough overhaul and specific bans of the most extreme methods. The Department of Defense has listed such prohibitions. The CIA has not.

Torturing prisoners doesn’t produce reliable data. It does, however, violate human rights and strip Americans of the right to protest torture of its own men and women. Above all, it blurs our credibility as a democracy worth defending. No American psychologist should have a part in an interrogation system with the potential to devolve into murder. No American should.

And now one of the APA’s Prize recipients, Mary Pipher, who wrote the New York Times bestseller Reviving Ophelia has returned her Presidential Citation from the APA as a result of the organization’s morally aberrant conduct in San Francisco. Pipher wrote:

I cannot accept the August 19, 2007 Reaffirmation of APA’s Position Against Torture… Under this motion, psychologists will be allowed to continue working on interrogation teams that are not subject to the Geneva Conventions. This motion places our organization on the side of the CIA and Department of Defense and at odds with the United Nations, The Red Cross, the American Psychiatric Association and the American Medical Association. With this reaffirmation we have made a terrible mistake.

The corruption of the institutional standards of an important profession is concern for all of us. Right now, the APA is out on a limb doing a tango with the CIA and the DOD. The branch has cracked and it is going to fall to the ground. And the reputation of the APA is going to suffer still more when the collaboration of some of its members with the torture regime is fully exposed, as it surely will be.

All Americans need to be asking how our society can cope with a profession that is beset with such severe moral rot.

More from