'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Friday, June 22, 2007

Psychologists and the War on Terror 

The willing participation of medical professionals in the brutalities at Guantanamo has been a periodic feature of this blog, as indicated here and here. Psycholgists are equally culpable, and their contribution goes far beyond Guantanamo, as demonstrated by this excerpt from a compelling open letter by dozens of psychiatrists to American Psychological Association president Sharon Brehm:

We write you as psychologists concerned about the participation of our profession in abusive interrogations of national security detainees at Guantánamo, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and at the so-called CIA "black sites."

Our profession is founded on the fundamental ethical principle, enshrined as Principle A in our Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct: "Psychologists strive to benefit those with whom they work and take care to do no harm." Irrefutable evidence now shows that psychologists participating in national security interrogations have systematically violated this principle. A recently declassified August 2006 report by the Department of Defense Office of the Inspector General (OIG) –Review of DoD-Directed Investigations of Detainee Abuse—describes in detail how psychologists from the military's Survival, Evasion Resistance, and Escape (SERE) program were instructed to apply their expertise in abusive interrogation techniques to interrogations being conducted by the DoD throughout all three theaters of the War on Terror (Guantánamo, Afghanistan, and Iraq).

SERE is the US military's program designed to train Special Forces and other troops at high risk of capture to resist "breaking" during harsh interrogations conducted by a ruthless enemy. During SERE training, trainees are subjected to extensive abusive treatment, including sensory deprivation, sleep deprivation, isolation, cultural and sexual humiliation, and, in some cases, simulated drowning ("waterboarding"). By SERE's own admission, these techniques are classified as torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.

The OIG report details a number of trainings and consultations provided by SERE psychologists to psychologists and other personnel involved in interrogations, including those on the Behavioral Science Consultation Teams (BSCT), generally composed of and headed by sychologists. The OIG confirms repeated press accounts over the last two years that SERE echniques were "reverse engineered" by SERE psychologists in consultation with the BSCT psychologists and others, to develop and standardize a regime of psychological torture used by interrogators at Guantánamo, and in Iraq and Afghanistan. The OIG report states: "Counterresistance techniques [SERE] were introduced because personnel believed that interrogation methods used were no longer effective in obtaining useful information from some detainees." The OIG report also clearly reveals the central role of psychologists in these processes:

"On September 16, 2002, the Army Special Operations Command and the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency [the military unit containing SERE] co-hosted a SERE psychologist conference at Fort Bragg for JTF-170 [the military component responsible for interrogations at Guantánamo] interrogation personnel. The Army's Behavioral Science Consultation Team from Guantánamo Bay also attended the conference. Joint Personnel Recovery Agency briefed JTF-170 representatives on the exploitation techniques and methods used in resistance (to interrogation) training at SERE schools. The JTF-170 personnel understood that they were to become familiar with SERE training and be capable of determining which SERE information and techniques might be useful in interrogations at Guantánamo. Guantánamo Behavioral Science Consultation Team personnel understood that they were to review documentation and standard operating procedures for SERE training in developing the standard operating procedure for the JTF-170, if the command approved those practices. The Army Special Operations Command was examining the role of interrogation support as a 'SERE Psychologist competency area'" (p. 25, emphasis added).

It is now indisputable that psychologists and psychology were directly and officially responsible for the development and migration of abusive interrogation techniques, techniques which the International Committee of the Red Cross has labeled "tantamount to torture." Reports of psychologists' (along with other health professionals') participation in abusive interrogations surfaced more than two years ago.

One of the common features of an increasingly violent, unaccountable society is the degradation of its professional classes. Now, to some extent, they always invariably serve as functionairies for their masters, only the most independent minded align themselves with movements for radical social change, but, even so, they perform within a complex network of ethical limitations and analytical standards that legitimize their outward appearance of objectivity.

Indeed, such limitations are essential to their effectiveness. After all, how else could Blackstone have permanently established the principles of larceny within Anglo-American jurisprudence in the 18th Century, thus criminalizing perquisites, an opaque, informal means of shared property rights in the production process by laborers, entrepreneurs and merchants in England, leading to the enshrinement of new, substituted system of wage labor? How else could Lombroso have persuaded so many that people reveal an inherent criminality through purported physiological deformities, deformities that, not coincidentally, matched the common perception of what was then known as the lower orders?

In both instances, education, ethics and methodology merged quite seamlessly with the prevailing elite social ideology of the day. Other examples abound. Eugenics, homosexuality as a mental disorder, and, more recently, The Arab Mind, a book that remains influential to this day, in spite of (or, is it because of?) its portrayal of Arabs and Arab culture as juvenile. As reported by Seymour Hersh in May 2004, the author's description of Arab sexuality strongly influenced the Pentagon:

The notion that Arabs are particularly vulnerable to sexual humiliation became a talking point among pro-war Washington conservatives in the months before the March, 2003, invasion of Iraq. One book that was frequently cited was “The Arab Mind,” a study of Arab culture and psychology, first published in 1973, by Raphael Patai, a cultural anthropologist who taught at, among other universities, Columbia and Princeton, and who died in 1996. The book includes a twenty-five-page chapter on Arabs and sex, depicting sex as a taboo vested with shame and repression. “The segregation of the sexes, the veiling of the women . . . and all the other minute rules that govern and restrict contact between men and women, have the effect of making sex a prime mental preoccupation in the Arab world,” Patai wrote. Homosexual activity, “or any indication of homosexual leanings, as with all other expressions of sexuality, is never given any publicity. These are private affairs and remain in private.” The Patai book, an academic told me, was “the bible of the neocons on Arab behavior.” In their discussions, he said, two themes emerged—“one, that Arabs only understand force and, two, that the biggest weakness of Arabs is shame and humiliation.”

The government consultant said that there may have been a serious goal, in the beginning, behind the sexual humiliation and the posed photographs. It was thought that some prisoners would do anything—including spying on their associates—to avoid dissemination of the shameful photos to family and friends. The government consultant said, “I was told that the purpose of the photographs was to create an army of informants, people you could insert back in the population.” The idea was that they would be motivated by fear of exposure, and gather information about pending insurgency action, the consultant said.

Not surprisingly, it didn't happen, just as Lombroso's biological determinism failed to predict criminal conduct. For our purposes, however, the important point is that The Arab Mind provided a pseudo-scientific justification for brutalizing Arabs in line with prevailing ideological norms much as Lombroso provided one for the suppression of non-Anglo Saxons and poor people. Unfortunately, as explained by the signatories to the letter, the application of these manufactured principles of Arab cultural behaviour violate the most commonly understood ethical principle of the profession: Psychologists strive to benefit those with whom they work and take care to do no harm.

Accordingly, instead of the education, ethics and methodology of the psychology profession legitimizing the abuse of detainees at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, quite the opposite has occurred. The abuse and the transparent rationalizations for them are delegitimizing the profession, exposing some of its participants, and its primary organization of governance, the American Psychological Association, as willing facilitators of these sadomasochistic practices. A similar phenomenon has occurred in the legal profession in regard to the judicial defense of these indefinite detentions and the conditions of confinement associated with them. One can only assume that the increased freedom to act violently and abusively more than compensates for the loss of institutional credibility and the potential domestic risk associated with it.

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