Health professionals must fight a Trump administration expansion of torture

It was profoundly distressing to hear Donald Trump on the campaign trail vowing a return to abusing prisoners with “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” Those thoughts threaten to reverse the work that I and others have done over the last decade to end torture as an official US government policy and to prevent health professionals’ participation in detainee abuse.

This piece originally appeared at Stat News on January 25, 2017.
It is re-published here with the author’s permission. 

As a psychologist, I know the extreme damage that torture — the systematic infliction of severe pain and degradation — does to its victims and to its perpetrators. My colleagues and I helped transform the American Psychological Association’s policies, establishing a firm barrier between psychological practice and national security interrogations and forbidding psychologist involvement in detainee care at detention sites, like the Guantánamo Bay detention camp in Cuba, which violates international law. As a result, a year ago the New York Times reported that Gen. John Kelly had ordered the removal of psychologists from all involvement with detainees at Guantánamo.

Since Trump’s election, signals on torture have been mixed. His national security advisor, Mike Flynn, has at times endorsed the used of torturous “enhanced interrogation” techniques. His new CIA director, Mike Pompeo, has not ruled out changing US laws to allow waterboarding and other torture.

Despite President Obama’s efforts to close Guantánamo, it remains open. The new administration is even considering expanding its population of detainees. And it is conceivable that additional detention sites may be opened to hold detainees in harsh conditions for extended and indefinite periods without trial.

During the George W. Bush administration, the US adopted interrogation techniques that our State Department had traditionally denounced as torture when used by others. The most famous of these was waterboarding, in which drowning is induced and then interrupted, inducing panic and terror. While waterboarding got the most attention, many of the other techniques, including excruciating stress positions, exposure to extreme hot and cold, and prolonged sleep deprivation in painful positions for up to 180 hours, were also deemed torture and had been denounced by the State Department.

Torture is so repugnant that virtually every country, even those that surreptitiously practice it, feel a need to disclaim it. The United Nations’s Convention Against Torture has been signed by 160 countries. For hundreds of years, opposition to the use of torture has been an important measure of a country’s evolution toward civilized values. The return to torture in the Bush administration set back that progress, not only in our country but also around the world, as other nations took it as a green light for barbarous practices.

While ISIS would no doubt engage in barbarities regardless of US torture policy, it is no accident that the prisoners they execute in gruesome videos are cloaked in orange jumpsuits.

The US is again in danger of becoming a country where torturous barbarity is publicly endorsed as official policy. To prevent this, it is vital that every institution of civil society speak out.

Among these institutions, the health professions have great leverage. They must use it, and their constituencies must demand they use it. Wherever there is systematic torture, there are often health professionals, vetting prisoners for further abuse and treating them afterward to keep them alive, at least until the torturers are done with them.

In the Bush era torture program, psychologists played special roles. In the CIA program, psychologists devised and administered the abuses, apparently even being present during waterboarding. At Guantánamo, which is run by the military, interrogators consulted with psychologists, reportedly using information in prisoners’ medical files to identify vulnerabilities that could be used to “break” them.

This involvement of psychologists and other health professionals was intentional. In the Bush administration’s “torture memos,” the presence of health professionals during torture served as a legal “get out of jail free card” for the abusers. If a health professional assured interrogators that their techniques would not cause severe long-lasting harm — the Bush administration’s defining characteristic of torture — the interrogator was protected from legal responsibility for any harm that occurred.

The Trump administration will also likely need health professionals as participants and as legal cover for any return to torture. We must deny them that protection.

Over the last decade, professional organizations representing physicians, psychologists, and nurses have issued formal statements opposing their members’ participation in torture. Physicians and psychologists have gone further, stating that any participation by their members in national security interrogations violates the professions’ central ethical injunction to “do no harm.” However, despite credible complaints against specific health professionals, no professional associations or state licensing boards have launched investigations, much less taken disciplinary action.

Given the threat that the new administration may expand Guantánamo and return to torture, health professional and behavioral science organizations should reiterate their ethical opposition and maintain the bright line separating their professionals from national security interrogations. Other professions should follow psychologists in forbidding their members from involvement in detention facilities that violate international law.

But they must also go further. Professional organizations need to make it crystal clear that any credible complaint that a member has participated in detainee abuses or at detention sites deemed illegal under international law will be thoroughly investigated, and that discipline will be imposed if the complaint is substantiated. Not to act in the current climate would constitute a failure of the health professions carrying out their compact with society to protect and improve the health and welfare of all individuals, regardless of their legal status.

At this dangerous time, society needs the voices of health professionals, and our actions, to halt the use of torture.

Stephen Soldz, a clinical psychologist, is professor of psychology at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis and director of its Social Justice and Human Rights Program. He is a former president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, a cofounder of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology, and an anti-torture advisor to Physicians for Human Rights.

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USA indigenous psychologists criticise APA refusal to consider support on Standing Rock

The Society of Indian (i.e. First Nations/indigenous) Psychologists in the USA has issued a strong statement on the blocking of a call for the APA to support the Standing Rock protestors against State violence.  The APA decision was made behind closed doors and would seem to reveal a staggering degree of institutional racism.

The statement begins:

We are writing to express deep concern with the way that certain senior APA staff took it upon themselves to quash our efforts to entreat the APA for support in addressing the current circumstances of conflict and state-sanctioned violence against the Water Protectors at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.

The senior staff in question elected to eschew making any kind of statement or to take any responsive action, to include further consultation with any of APA’s American Indian experts citing that: 1) it was a State, not a federal, issue (which of course Standing Rock sovereignty elevates such concerns to a federal level); and 2) that the issues raised by the situation at Standing Rock (environmental racism, community violence against an American Indians, health disparities, and historical re-traumatization) were not in line with APA direction and priorities.
Read the full Statement (pdf file)

 

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Call for articles: Ethics, Psychology and War

Ethics, Psychology and War

Special issue

Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology

Abstract submission deadline: December 1st 2015

Full paper submission deadline: March 1st 2016

Edited by

Paul S. Duckett

Serdar M. Değirmencioğlu

Victoria University, Australia

Doğuş University, Turkey

Focus of the special issue

The purpose of this special issue is to respond to the recently published Hoffman Report and invite contributions to the Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology on the topics of war and peace that discuss the past, present and future relationship of Community Psychology to the industrial-military complex. This special issue is open to literature review articles, articles on new empirical and social action projects and theoretical writings and position papers.

Background

Psychology has a long history of working closely with government agencies to help with ‘military problems’. Aptitude and intelligence testing of soldiers, the development of facial recognition software, studies on attitude formation, and motivation studies are just a few of the areas of psychology that have been directly applied, often directly commissioned, by the military. Psychological operations, methods to promote soldier resilience and the development of torture techniques are among the most recent areas where the relationship between psychology and the military continues.

This relationship has now become foregrounded in academic and public debate following the Hoffman Report, which was commissioned by the American Psychological Association (APA), the most powerful professional association in psychology. The report portrays the relationship between the military establishment in the US and APA as follows:

In some ways, DoD [Department of Defense] is like a rich, powerful uncle to APA, helping it in important ways throughout APA’s life. Acting independently of a benefactor like this is difficult. (p.72)

The close ties between psychology and the military-industrial establishment in the US and elsewhere so evident for an independent team of lawyers were hardly ever questioned in mainstream psychology.

While mainstream psychology has had a lot to do with war and much of it has been in regard to its promotion, psychology has also had voices committed to the prevention of war. In response to the nuclear brinksmanship engaged in by the US President Regan during the 1980s, a number of groups of psychologists developed to promote peace.

Curiously, Community Psychology appears to have paid rather sparse attention to the topics of war and peace. One might have expected Community Psychology – with its focus on communities, social change, well-being and its value-driven approach – to be well suited to address the impact of war and to take a political and ethical position towards war. However, Community Psychology appears to have been somewhat silent on the subject – at least in its major publishing outputs and in conferences in Australasia, North America and Europe (Değirmencioğlu, 2010; Duckett 2005). War appears to have remained a rather subsidiary topic in Community Psychology and there has been little, if any, political or ethical analysis of the subject (Değirmencioğlu & Duckett, forthcoming). One might conclude that it is difficult to know what the ethical stance of a community psychologist might be to the topic of war. This Special Issues will address this apparent deficit.

Submission process and deadlines

For this special issue we warmly welcome contributions from community and applied social psychology. We invite detailed abstracts (max. 500 words or 2 pages) indicating the potential contribution. The most relevant and promising abstracts will be selected for further development into full manuscripts (7000 words).

All manuscripts will be blind peer-reviewed. Abstracts and manuscripts should be submitted via the JCASP online system (http://mc.manuscriptcentral.com/casp), with a cover letter identifying that they are for the special issue on ethics, psychology and war. Normal JCASP guidelines for authors apply.

Further information on this special issue can be obtained from paul.ducket(AT)vu.edu.au.

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Article on liberation ethics, coloniality and psychology

Here is a link to my article, “A Renewal of Ethics”, in the British monthly, The Psychologist.  The article is based on a lecture I gave at the British Psychological Society conference last Easter.  Rather breathlessly, it considers some ethical challenges, the inadequacy of dominant frameworks for guiding action, the origins of the contemporary malaise in the colonial encounter, and some alternative frameworks to consider.  Liberation thought runs through the article.  I’d like to develop the analysis presented in more detail in further work, so I’d really appreciate constructive comment, either on this site, by email, or where possible in  person. Read the article HERE.
Mark Burton

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