The Complicity of Psychologists in Torture
We should be examining ourselves and not our patients.
Posted April 11, 2011
Last week, a military psychologist by the name of Major John Leso faced complaints by the New York state licensing boards over his participation in the torture of suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay. The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) and the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA) presented evidence before state regulators requesting that Major Leso be stripped of his New York license. Civil Court Judge Saliann Scarpulla, who is overseeing the proceedings, agreed the case had "huge moral implications," but added she was "not sure the judicial process is the right way to do this."
The CJA and several psychologists have also called on the American Psychological Association (APA) to take action against Major Leso. They have requested that he be expelled from the Association for violating its Ethics Code. The Code states, for example, that "psychologists seek to safeguard the welfare and rights of those with whom they interact professionally." While the APA has publicly announced its vehement opposition to torture, its actions have suggested otherwise.
In practice, the APA has chosen to condone torture by refusing to uphold its own policies, like those of the 1986 Resolution Against Torture by the American Psychological Association Council of Representatives, which bars members from participating in any form of interrogation that violates international law. In 2005, the APA established a task force to explore the issue further. This Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS) concluded that "psychologist do not engage in, direct, support, facilitate, or offer training in torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment." However, such statements appear to be empty declarations, as the APA to date has been unwilling to hold its members accountable to its own ethical standards.
The fact that members of our own profession, and those who oversee them, continue to condone torture either through active or implicit participation suggests to me that our profession is in trouble. Psychologists, like the rest of society, are certainly not immune to the institutional pressures that can lead to human rights violations like those committed at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. As psychologist, however, we take an oath to "do no harm" and we aspire to protect the welfare and rights of those who are entrusted to our care (even those with whom we may fundamentally disagree). To say we are "serving our country" or "following orders" does not override our shared ethical responsibility to do no harm. If we as a profession are unable to adhere and promote this most basic human principle than it us - and not our patients - we should be examining.
Tyger Latham, Psy.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist practicing in Washington, DC. He counsels individuals and couples and has a particular interest in sexual trauma, gender development, and LGBT concerns. His blog, Therapy Matters, explores the art and science of psychotherapy.