Psychology and the cruelty at Guantánamo

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by Stephen Soldz

In a recent letter to the New York Times, writer Rachelle Marshall eloquently expresses the reality that Guantanamo exists and is organized to destroy the human beings incarcerated there:

To the Editor:

Re “Military Taking a Tougher Line With Detainees” (front page, Dec. 16):

A desire to inflict suffering is the only plausible motive behind the new security tightening at Guantánamo Bay. The detainees are now confined to tiny cells most of the day and denied contact with each other. There is no danger that they will escape — no prisoner has ever done so. The detainees no longer have useful information to impart, assuming they ever did.

The Guantánamo task force commander, Rear Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., is convinced that “they’re all terrorists; they’re all enemy combatants,” but their guilt has never been determined in court, and more than 200 detainees once labeled dangerous “enemy combatants” have been released to their home countries and are now free.

One official reason for the new policy is to prevent inmates from committing suicide, but it is prolonged isolation and punishment, without hope of release, that make suicide an option. Capital punishment is often condemned as barbaric. Destroying human beings from within while keeping their bodies alive is infinitely crueler.

Rachelle Marshall
Stanford, Calif., Dec. 16, 2006
Of course, the leadership of the American Psychological Association understands this too. That's why they take refuge in abstract principles, such as opposition to "torture," while fighting tooth, claw, and nail to avoid any discussion of the real world in which psychologist-interrogators operate. The mere mention of the real world in which these psychologist-interrogators ply their craft drives the APA leadership into apoplexy, as in this retort from the 2006 APA President Koocher in his February 2006 President's Column, titled "Speaking Against Torture", but which should rather be titled "Protecting the Torturers":

"A number of opportunistic commentators masquerading as scholars have continued to report on alleged abuses by mental health professionals."

While condemning critics as "opportunistic commentators", President Koocher touts, rather, the Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS), in which a hand-picked membership, including six (out of nine) voting members from the military and intelligence establishment, were carefully guided by the APA leadership to the predetermined conclusion that psychologist participation in interrogations at Guantanamo and the numerous other U.S. detention facilities around the world was ethically permissible, indeed, President Koocher gives the sense, even admirable.

While condemning "torture" in the abstract, the APA has systematically refused to deal with the reality of what occurs at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Bagram Air Base (see also Papers reveal Bagram abuse), or any of the numerous other places around the world where tens of thousands are detained by American forces and abused, with no rights, legal protections, or sense of when, or if, they will ever be released.

Thus, through this subterfuge, psychology has become one of those professions accepting the deliberate infliction of human suffering and the systematic destruction of human beings. If the APA policy allowing participation in interrogations is not reversed soon, the phrase "American psychologist" will start being uttered in sentences that also include phrases like "Soviet psychiatrists" or "Nazi doctors"

As occurred in response to Soviet psychiatry, which contributed to the maintenance of "state security" by locking up  dissidents in mental hospitals, perhaps it is time for psychological and other professional associations around the world to cease collaborating with the torture-accepting American Psychological Association.

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