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.
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.
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)
An article of interest, one of a series by the author on this subject has appeared in the online journal Indian Country.
Betrayal by Labels: The Feebleminded, ADHD Native Child
Diagnosing Native children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and treating them with stimulants does nothing to improve their educational or intellectual growth. Even worse, it sets them up for failure. Such an idea may upset the many caretakers, educators and mental health providers who think they are helping so-called “ADHD children,” yet Native children have been sabotaged by a similar mentality for generations.
Roderick J. Watts
City University of New York
Mark asked me to write something about the recent Mother Jones Magazine article on police violence against people of African descent (http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2014/08/police-shootings-michael-brown-ferguson-black-men). The article is well worth reading especially if you have the research skills to propose a methodology that would help us better monitor efforts to stop the racist carnage. Where I am going with Mark’s invitation has taken me far afield of the article, an it is longer than I planned! Call it therapy for the negative emotions stirred up by these ongoing police killings. That said, I tend to be pragmatic. I will address the question of what we can do curtail this and other forms of social oppression.
Like some many of my friends and students, I was very angry, saddened and disillusioned by this latest high-profile tragedy in Ferguson Missouri where 18 year old Michael Brown was gunned down by police. This act, or more damningly the charade of a prosecution that took place and ended without an indictment is part of what see as racialized state terrorism. Although this term in typically reserved for state actions on a mass scale in places outside of the G20, the aims are essentially the same:
State terrorism is a systematic governmental policy in which massive violence is practiced against a given population group with the goal of eliminating any behavior that promotes political struggle or resistance by member of that group. Any state that engages in terrorism is not a protector of citizens; rather, it violates civil and human rights…”[i]
Ferguson is a place where the policing and judicial systems regularly terrorize Black and Brown communities that are already under attack from within and without. As is the case in many other places around the country, Black teenagers go to jail for nickel bags, while White adult police officers kill Black adults with the implied consent of judicial institutions that are supposed to make killers accountable. It doesn’t take a psychologist to figure out how this can terrorize, traumatize and demoralize communities of color everywhere in the system’s orbit.
Although policing in the USA can take the form of institutionalized racial terrorism, it was once a popular “sport” for amateurs during the era of lynching that peaked in the late 1800s. Ralph Ginzburg’s documentation of thousands of these murders began only just before the peak period in the starkly titled book 100 Years of Lynchings. He filled his book with photocopies of newspaper articles of the day that offer a glimpse of this populist terrorism. His is a simple, yet powerful act of social research. For the record, as Wikipedia notes “Lynchings were also very common in the Old West, where victims were primarily men of Mexican and Chinese minorities, although whites were also lynched.” This tells me that the dehumanization of Africans was so well accepted that it was difficult for people to see how once accepted, dehumanization spreads to new targets that were once seen as human. Dehumanization is at the heart of oppression. It may start with people who look like me, and others further in the margins such as transgendered Black women—but it will work its way up to others if we allow it to. Don’t we ever learn, that any one of us can be next?
The point of this historical reference is that US terrorism continues in the present moment through professionalized lynching in police departments and “stand your ground” legislation that shields amateurs from prosecution. But even this is not at the root of the social ills in Missouri and around the nation. Khalil Gibran Muhammad’s book The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America (2011) traces the centuries-long history of the dehumanization of Black men, aided by the pseudo-scholarly work of many in the academy. His thesis tracks with the book Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II in 2009 (D. Blackmon) and also The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander in 2012. Today, the school to jail track that criminalizes youth of color figures prominently is the modern legacy of racial oppression. Carter Woodson’s book the Miseducation of the Negro from the 1930s shows how important caste is to White supremacy in major institutions like education. Violence comes in many forms. This history shows how the USA got to where it is today.
Scholars have always played ball on both sides of the divide of humanism and de-humanism, but let’s face it: the settings most of us spend our time in do not encourage us to be major players in the struggle for liberation. We are up against power players with the resources to manufacture and disseminate the narratives and consent needed to
further their interests. So what are liberation psychologists to do?
I claim no brilliant or original insights on this question, but I’d like to contribute to our on-going dialog and reflection on positioning ourselves in against oppression. First, psychology is not nearly enough—ours is a field of liberation studies and action (LiSA)–but you know that. Second, many of us pursuing LiSA have positioned ourselves in careers that give us a measure of autonomy. In my view, the challenge is to determine what our personal gifts are then commit to long-term alliances with social movements. Only a few of us have what it takes to excel at the vanguard of such movements or inspire the masses from behind a bullhorn. Racialized terrorism whether state-sponsored or through vigilantism needs “best practices” for personal and collective resistance. At the micro-level we can we engage with individuals and small groups. Members of marginalized populations and communities contend with an on-going pattern of traumatic experiences—wrongful deaths, discrimination, and the micro aggressions of daily live they encounter in public institutions . These traumas were vividly evident in the local response to the grand jury’s decision not to indict officer Darren Wilson. We need LiSA professionals who can apply the healing arts and sciences through critical consciousness rather than from the perspective of the pathology-centered industry that dominates US mental health. See the book Advancing Social Justice Through Clinical Practice (Edited by Aldarondo), for examples on how it can be done.
At the organization level, those of us in the geopolitical North are reminded of Seymour Sarason’s work on the creation of settings. In particular, sustainable, social-change settings. I can think of two examples where LiSA can play a role. In the schools we can partner with teachers who do social justice education. Working collaboratively with young people we can help prepare them for roles in community organizing and ultimately movement politics. For example, I am working with my colleagues in planning the Free Minds, Free People conference convened by the Education for Liberation Network (www.edliberation.org) and co-sponsored by its wide variety of allies. The Network brings together teachers, high school and college students, researchers, parents and community-based activists-educators from across the country to build a movement to develop and promote education as a tool for liberation. Second, many of us would like to see is a school to movement pipeline that connects school children, their parents and the surrounding neighborhoods so that the community capacity needed to push back on racialized terrorism and other forms of injustice can occur.
Healing+ Well-being, social movement capacity, institution building, and participatory research are all areas where so-called best practices from LiSA and play a role. Two last examples for the LiSA researchers reading this: My colleague Ben Kirshner and I are conducting a 4+ year, international study of youth community organizing in the US, Ireland and South Africa. We often hear leaders in the organizations tell us that they need brief position papers from scholars to bolster credibility with certain audiences. Better yet, they say, have these scholars who will stick their necks out as well and take a public positions on contentious issues.
Lastly, there is the challenging role of working with the police! Go to this story about a seemingly rigorous study that shows significant reductions in police violence for departments that began using body cameras to monitor their actions on the street (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/nov/04/california-police-body-cameras-cuts-violence-complaints-rialto). Don’t sneer—having conscious people working in the belly of the beast as others engage in frontal assaults of same pack twice the punch.
Thanks for reading. I am posting this here first, because I value thoughts on these matters. I am also I am considering another version of this for the Community Psychologist. I would love to have some feedback and to hear about the niches others have found a meaningful place for their LiSA skills.
[i] Jalata, A. (2005). State Terrorism and Globalization: The case of Ethiopia and Sudan. International Journal of Comparative Sociology 46(1-2):79-102
1) On our videos page, we have added an audio recording of an interview with Martín-Baró from 1988. In it he speaks of the circumstances under which he was working, including a wider political analysis of the Salvadorean conflict, the impact of torture and repression, and his survival of terrorist attacks on the University. Thanks to Brinton Lykes for making this available.
2) Brinton is also the co-founder of the Martín-Baró Fund, which makes funding available to “grassroots groups throughout the world who are challenging institutional repression and confronting the mental health consequences of violence and injustice in their communities.” Their current newsletter “The Just Word” has several articles (including a rare piece in English byElizabeth Lira from Chile) about Nacho and his impact, you can download it here.
3) Bruce Levine, another network member has also published an article to mark the 25th anniversary of Martín-Baró’s murder. He reflects on the collusion of the American (sic) Psychological Association with the torture programme in occupied Guantánamo, (depicted in this film) noting that
“Liberation psychology – which Martin-Baró helped popularize – challenges adjustment to an unjust societal status quo and energizes oppressed people to resist injustices.”
You can read Bruce’s piece in “Truth Out” here.
4) Finally, about 12 years ago, when, with some difficulty, I got my copies of the two volumes of Martín-Baró’s “Psicología desde Centroamérica”, I translated the prologues and summaries for my own use. A revised version of my translation of the Prologue to volume 1, “Acción e Ideología” is available on request. This prologue gives a very clear account of his project to reconstruct social psychology, from the perspective of the peoples of Central America. Please treat these notes for what they are, an initial translation without any review or other checks. It is a great shame that more of Nacho’s work has not been translated into other languages to give a wider audience access to the breadth and depth of his work. The translation is available, HERE, for personal use.
Here is the third in our series to mark the quarter century since Ignacio Martín-Baró’s murder.
In “Nacho’s Legacy in the San Francisco Bay Area” Félix Salvador Kury remembers Martín-Baró’s visit to San Francisco in 1988 and talks about his work in El Salvador in the context of a bitter struggle before going on to tell us about the Clínica Martín-Baró, a free service for Latina and Latino migrants, which as Felix says is a lasting legacy of Nacho’s visit and his relationship with North American solidaritarian colleagues.
“I knew of Ignacio Martín-Baró’s work long before I invited him to a conference on Central American refugees in the spring of 1988. It was his first visit to the San Francisco Bay Area. Having “Nacho” for a week in my house was a very special and transformative experience. Three of my cousins of were among his students of Psychology at UCA. One of them was brutally murdered when she was seven months pregnant.
“Ignacio Martín-Baró was “Nacho” to many of us who knew him, who love him and miss him. At at the time of his assassination, he was the vice rector Central American University “Jose Simeon Cañas” (UCA, in Spanish). The University of Central America played a leading role in the effort to resolve El Salvador’s decades-long civil war. Jesuit faculty members, who often spoke out against human rights abuses, were accused by the government and the military of providing intellectual support for the FMLN rebel uprising.
“Ignacio Martín-Baró, a Spanish-born Salvadoran citizen, at age 50 was best known as an analyst of national and regional affairs and as the founder and director of the Public Opinion Institute, a highly respected polling organization. He was also a writer, teacher, and a pastor. He was killed along with five other Jesuit priests and two women on November 16, 1989. He was killed by a military battalion that had just returned form military training at the School Of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia. It was not the first assassination of church leaders: 18 Catholic priests, including Father Rutilio Grande and Archbishop Oscar Romero, and four North American churchwomen, had been killed in El Salvador since the late 1970s – more than any other nation in the world. …. read the rest of the short piece HERE.
Felix is the Program Director & Faculty Advisor for the Clínica Martín-Baró, San Francisco, California, USA. Their website and blog is here (material in Spanish and English.
Here is a gallery of photos illustrating the work that Felix has kindly made available.
Here is the second in our series of pieces to commemorate the murder of Ignacio Martín Baró in November, 1989. It is by Taiwo Afuape who is a clinical psychologist and systemic therapist working in mental health services for children and for adults where she lives, in London. She reflects on what Martín Baró and Liberation Psychology means for her, linking this to contemporary social, political and economic struggles in the UK where despite being a rich country we have extreme and increasing inequality, exploitation and oppression while helping inflict these things on other regions. Taiwo makes particular reference to her Nigerian heritage and her family, reminding us that the personal is politics, just as the psychological is also political, while the political is both personal and psychological too.
Read Taiwo’s piece HERE
This month also sees the appearance of an article by Wayne Dykstra Liberation psychology – a history for the future. Wayne, who comes from the United States, but is researching Liberation Psychology’s diffusion in Dublin, particularly focusses on the solidarity extended to Martín Baró and the Salvadorian struggle by a number of North American psychologists, including Adrianne Aron who provided the first piece in libpsy.org’s 25 years on series. At our request the piece has been made open access.
Also in that issue is a very interesting set of articles on Turkish social psychologist Muzafer Sherif, and his collaborator Carolyn Sherif. Like Martín Baró, Sherif sought to construct a non-individualistic social psychology, relating human action not to some internal ‘human nature’ but to the social context, itself constructed historically. The articles, also openly accessible, give some important background information on Sherif and his work, in the context of struggles against fascism and rampant capitalism. See: Camps, conflict and collectivism; The unknown Muzafer Sherif and The view from the boys. Retrieving Sherif’s seminal work is very relevant to today’s development of a truly social psychology – one that liberates and is itself liberated.
This newsletter is becoming a useful resource on Liberation psychology and its connections with related fields of study and struggle. Did you know, for example that despite Bhutan touting its high levels of “Gross National Happiness” (as an alternative to the flawed Gross National Product), its military has murdered, raped, tortured and/or imprisoned many citizens, some of whom are now refugees in other places. The newsletter includes an article on work with Bhutanese refugees in the USA. I’m looking forward to the book that will appear this autumn by Mary Watkins and Ed Casey on the Mexico-USA border wall. They have recently visited Palestine to learn about the parallels with the apartheid separation wall erected by the Israeli occupation power. There are many other interesting things in this 36 page edition, with a lot of emphasis on ecological issues and indigenous traditions and knowledge.