Thursday, August 16, 2007

Psychologists Alleviate Human Suffering; They Don't Inflict It

Mark Benjamin has an important and interesting article in Salon about the American Psychological Association's internal struggle to take a stand on the participation of psychologists in coercive C.I.A. interrogations. This weekend, at their annual convention in San Francisco, the APA plans to issue a statement condemning the use of torture. But there is a larger controversy within the organization about whether to forbid member psychologists to participate in torture, as advisers to C.I.A. interrogators:

The APA's anti-torture resolution follows a string of revelations in recent months of the key role played by psychologists in the development of brutal interrogation regimes for the CIA and the military. And it comes just weeks after news that the White House may be calling on psychologists once again: On July 20, President Bush signed an executive order restarting a coercive CIA interrogation program at the agency's "black sites." Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell has indicated that psychological techniques will be part of the revamped program, but that the interrogations would be subject to careful medical oversight. That oversight is likely to be performed by psychologists.

In fact, given what promises to be the continuing involvement of psychologists in coercive interrogation, there is intense infighting within the organization about whether simply condemning abusive tactics is enough. Some of the APA's 148,000 members think the anti-torture resolution put forward by APA leadership is too weak, and they are putting intense pressure on the organization's leadership to go a step further and ban psychologists from participating in detainee interrogations altogether. They have introduced their own resolution proposing a moratorium. "I and others think that a moratorium is essential to try to tell the government that psychologists are not going to participate in the interrogation of enemy combatants," said Bernice Lott, a member of the Council of Representatives, the APA's policy-making body. Others oppose the moratorium because they think psychologists must be involved in the interrogations to prevent abuse -- and because the government may just choose to use non-APA members for its interrogations, as has already happened.

The "duh" factor is strong here: What sense is there in the APA identifying specific interrogation practices as torture and condemning them, if member psychologists can continue to help the C.I.A. carry out these practices without professional consequence?

I also don't buy the "constructive engagement" argument that "psychologists must be involved in the interrogations to prevent abuse." Harnessing their expertise on the human psyche to guide torturers in inflicting mental pain without "causing permanent damage" is corrupt and evil -- not to mention being rotten science. If it's wrong to torture, then it's wrong to advise torturers on how to torture without going "too far."

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