Dismantling the Master's House: Psychologists and Torture

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Amid disturbing reports that psychologists were involved in the abuse and torture of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere, the American Psychological Association (APA) Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS) met in the summer of 2005. Over two days they considered whether the Bush Administration’s no-holds-barred “enhanced interrogation” policies crossed ethical boundaries for military psychologists. Six of the nine voting Task Force members were on the payroll of the military/intelligence establishment, and some of them worked in the chains of command when and where instances of abuse and torture had reportedly occurred. So we should not be surprised by the Task Force’s conclusion that psychologists play an important role in keeping detainee interrogations “safe, legal, ethical, and effective.” This assessment affirmed, nearly verbatim, the military’s own description of Behavioral Science Consultation Team (BSCT) psychologists — a description that had been provided to the Task Force in writing  before  their deliberations even began.

Professional psychology has made valuable contributions to national security through collaborative efforts with government agencies — and it will undoubtedly continue to do so. But does anyone truly believe that crucial determinations about  psychological   ethics  should ever be guided by the views and agenda of the Secretary of Defense or the Director of the CIA? The many glaring flaws associated with the PENS Report are especially revealing since the APA is, after all, an organization of  psychologists . It’s therefore very unlikely that the Task Force organizers were somehow unaware of the potent psychological influences of power differentials on group dynamics; of authority structures and conformity pressures on independent decision-making; and of self-interest on objective, unbiased analysis. It’s far more likely the organizers knew exactly how to create the conditions that would reliably produce the outcome they sought.

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"Safe, Legal, Ethical, and Effective"?: It's Time to Annul the PENS Report

Many viewers were outraged this past August watching NBC’s Today Show interview with former Vice President Dick Cheney. Promoting the release of his new memoir, Cheney nodded in agreement when Matt Lauer noted that the VP continues to support waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques” (e.g., stress positions, hypothermia, sleep deprivation, fear induction). Lauer also quoted a key passage from the book: “The program was safe, legal, and effective. It provided intelligence that enabled us to prevent attacks and save American lives” (emphasis added).

Cheney’s “safe-legal-effective” catechism is all too familiar to psychologists like me. It’s three-quarters of a phrase that has defined professional psychology’s decade-long ethical tailspin in the national security sector since the attacks of 9/11. And hearing these words again, I recalled an earlier interview with Stephen Behnke, Director of the Ethics Office of the American Psychological Association (APA). In August 2005, Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! asked Dr. Behnke to explain the conclusions of the APA’s then newly released Presidential Report on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS). The Report advocated the continuing involvement of psychologists in the interrogation of national security detainees. Dr. Behkne offered this summary: “The Task Force said that psychologists must adhere, and they used four words to describe psychologist involvement: safe, legal, ethical, and effective” (emphasis added).

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Worse Than Fiction: America's Overcrowded Cellar

In a 1973 short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” fantasy writer Ursula Le Guin describes a peculiar city where the inhabitants’ prosperity depends entirely upon the endless suffering of a single young child, locked away forever in a cellar. The townspeople ignore the child’s pleas for release because they have learned that his salvation will destroy a world that is utopian in every other way. As Le Guin writes:

They all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.

Although we may be tempted to look for parallels between this troubling tale and the ills of contemporary U.S. society, our attention should instead be drawn to two striking differences. First, whereas in Omelas one child tragically suffers for the welfare of everyone else, in the United States today many, many more children are abandoned to a metaphorical cellar — not for the greater good, but merely to preserve or enhance the lives of a privileged relative few. Second, the distressing arrangement is unalterable in Omelas, fixed in place by the author’s construction. In our world, the current system instead reflects an outrageous lack of political will and courage.

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The Dark Side of "Comprehensive Soldier Fitness"

(NOTE: My thanks to co-authors Marc Pilisuk and Stephen Soldz.)

Why is the world's largest organization of psychologists so aggressively promoting a new, massive, and untested military program? The APA's enthusiasm for mandatory "resilience training" for all US soldiers is troubling on many counts.

The January 2011 issue of the American Psychologist, the American Psychological Association's (APA) flagship journal, is devoted entirely to 13 articles that detail and celebrate the virtues of a new US Army-APA collaboration. Built around positive psychology and with key contributions from former APA President Martin Seligman and his colleagues, Comprehensive Soldier Fitness (CSF) is a $125 million resilience training initiative designed to reduce and prevent the adverse psychological consequences of combat for our soldiers and veterans. While these are undoubtedly worthy aspirations, the special issue is nevertheless troubling in several important respects: the authors of the articles, all of whom are involved in the CSF program, offer very little discussion of conceptual and ethical considerations; the special issue does not provide a forum for any independent critical or cautionary voices whatsoever; and through this format, the APA itself has adopted a jingoistic cheerleading stance toward a research project about which many crucial questions should be posed. We discuss these and related concerns below.

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In Praise of Shared Outrage

“We have to tolerate the inequality as a way to achieve greater prosperity and opportunity for all.” These were the words of Lord Brian Griffiths, Goldman Sachs international adviser, when he spoke at London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral last fall. With inequality at historic levels here in the United States and around the world, it’s a reassuring message we all might wish to be true.

Unfortunately, scientific research reveals a sharply different reality: inequality is a driving force behind many of our most profound social ills. The Equality Trust reviewed thousands of studies conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, the World Health Organization, the United Nations, and the World Bank. Consistent patterns emerged, both between and within countries. Inequality is associated with diminished levels of physical and mental health, child well-being, educational achievement, social mobility, trust, and community life. And it is linked to increased levels of violence, drug use, imprisonment, obesity, and teenage births. In short, Lord Griffiths’ claim–despite the venue–was a self-serving fiction.

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Psychology for Progressive Purposes

For today’s engaged citizens, there’s no shortage of pressing concerns that demand attention: social and economic inequality, inadequate access to health care, persecution and violence on the basis of belief or group identity, assaults on civil rights and personal dignity, and profound environmental threats to the planet itself.

As president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility (PsySR), I work with fellow members — psychologists and non-psychologists alike — in a shared venture to confront many of these challenges. A central premise of our efforts is that psychology — the science of human behavior — offers a strong base of knowledge and practice for developing and implementing policies that promote peace, social justice, human rights, and an ecologically sustainable future. We pursue these goals through research, education, intervention, and advocacy.

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Imperfect Guides to Living: Our Five Core Concerns

decisionsEvery day we face decisions that help determine what tomorrow will look like — for ourselves and for others as well.

In my work as a clinical, social, and political psychologist, I’ve found that the decisions we make are powerfully influenced by five core concerns. These concerns revolve around issues of vulnerability, injustice, distrust, superiority, and helplessness. Their impact is felt almost everywhere: at home, at work, in the community, in politics, and even in international relations.

Of particular importance, these five concerns shape our perceptions and actions by serving as persuasive yet imperfect guides to the world around us. In our pursuit of positive personal and social change, they can both illuminate the path forward and lead us far astray. Sadly, too often we fail to recognize the difference. Let’s briefly consider each in turn.

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