Revolution#141, August 24, 2008

Taking a Stand Against Torture at the American Psychological Association Convention

The American Psychological Association held its annual convention August 14th through August 17th in Boston. The association is one of the largest medical associations in the country and close to 20,000 people registered for the conference. A vast exhibition hall was filled with displays and concessions. Many attendees took advantage of the conference to connect with distant colleagues and old classmates and to do some quick sightseeing. But in the aisles of the main hall, in the smaller meetings and workshops and in the streets outside the convention center a far more serious debate took place – will the APA continue to be the only major professional medical association in the United States that condones its members participation in the torture of prisoners being held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and CIA “black sites around the world”?

Since revelation of interrogation tactics at the U.S. Naval Air Station in Cuba and elsewhere, described by the International Red Cross as “tantamount to torture,” both the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association have passed referendums condemning the practices and taken measures to ensure their members do not participate in them. While these referendums don’t allow these organizations to directly restrict a member’s activity, they carry strong weight both within and outside their professions.

In the face of both the mounting evidence of torture and medical professionals’ participation, the American Psychological Association has refused to pass a similar referendum – and the leadership of the APA and powerful forces aligned with the U.S. military inside the APA have forcefully fought against such a referendum. As reported in the August 16 issue of the New York Times, this has led to an intense and often wrenching struggle inside the APA that has everything to do with the ability of the U.S. rulers to line up important sections of the medical community to play the role of “Good Germans” and to put their professional stamp of approval on U.S. war crimes against the people of the world.

This was evident at the protest outside the convention center in Boston where scores of signs reading “Stop the Torture, End the Complicity” and “Do No Harm” lined the street running in front of the center. Protesters clad in orange jumpsuits and black hoods greeted psychologists and others attending.

The protest, called for by Boston Psychologists for an Ethical APA and endorsed by several other organizations including Physicians for Human Rights and the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology, included psychologists who had left the APA in protest over its failure to take a stand in opposition to the torture tactics employed by the U.S. government and others who had remained in the APA to continue the fight inside the organization. One spoke about the revelations (referred to in the Times article) that psychologists, members of the APA have not only been part of interrogation teams at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere but have played an active role in developing, implementing and evaluating the results of these interrogation tactics. “Our Hippocratic Oath says ‘Do No Harm’ not ‘Oversee the harm to keep it in acceptable limits.’” This was a specific response to those in the APA who have argued that the interrogation tactics might well be worse if medical professionals were not on hand to monitor the interrogations.

At the center of this protest and what has become the focal point of the struggle in the APA is a referendum sponsored by Psychologists for an Ethical APA and already endorsed by over 1,000 psychologists that the APA take a stand prohibiting members from working in “settings where persons are held outside of, or in violation of, either International Law (e.g. the UN Convention Against Torture and the Geneva Conventions) or the U.S. Constitution (where appropriate, unless they are working directly for the persons being detained or for an independent third party working to protect human rights.)”

While the referendum wording is relatively mild, the potential consequences could be very dramatic. One speaker outlined how, in addition to the crucial role psychologists play in interrogations, under the current provisions of U.S. law that were developed and put into place under the Bush Regime, U.S. military personal cannot be tried for war crimes if their actions are carried out under the auspices of medical professionals. While the referendum would not allow the APA to directly restrict member’s ability to practice, the threat of professional censure would be a powerful rebuttal of this practice.

The leadership of the APA has made various efforts to quell this protest, first by ignoring it, then by trying to “kill it with a loving embrace” as another speaker put it. Leadership has repeatedly cited the fact that the organization has recently passed several resolutions opposing members’ participation in interrogation tactics involving torture and, as an organization, has lodged its “concerns” with the Bush Administration over the revelations of the specific tactics at Guantanamo Bay.

But speakers at the protest pointed out that previous resolutions are so full of loopholes that none of them prevent members from engaging in the very tactics revealed at Guantanamo Bay and that psychologists in the APA continue to play a central role in the military and CIA interrogation of people categorized as “enemy combatants.” Psychological profiles have been turned over to interrogators to determine the best line of approach. Psychologists have evaluated response to interrogation tactics and suggested “more effective” methods such as confronting detainees with attack dogs, sleep deprivation and threatening to bury people alive.

It was also recently revealed that a majority of the members of a task force appointed by the APA leadership to investigate the ethics of psychologist involvement in interrogation techniques, were from the military establishment with four having served in the chain of command implicated in detainee abuse at Guantanamo Bay.

All of this has further outraged many members of the APA and raised profound ethical questions about complicity in the age of empire that go beyond the current resolution. The prospects of an attack on Iran and the possibilities the U.S. government using nuclear weapons was very much on the minds of many participants, with some had already made plans to join the demonstrations at the Democratic National Convention in Denver.

Beyond that, there is an emerging question with some members about what kind of society they want to be part of and if there is any way to reconcile their deep felt commitment as healers and as human beings with the direction of U.S. society is today headed.

The referendum is being mailed out to all members of the APA to be voted on over the coming weeks. The outcome of the vote should be carefully watched.

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