For the past decade, there has been a contested and politically fraught question within the field of psychology regarding what role, if any, a psychologist may ethically play in the interrogation of enemy combatants. The urgent and fiery nature of this debate emerged, of course, out of the increasing public realization in the early 2000s that these “interrogations” based out of sequestered locations like Guantanamo Bay often consisted of government-sanctioned torture.
The American Psychological Association (APA) was slow to make any proclamation concerning the ethicality of a psychologist participating in or even overseeing the torture of another human being, despite the first and guiding ethical principle of the profession stating that psychologists should “do no harm”. When the APA began to draft policy tied to this issue in 2005, many psychologists criticized the organization for being equivocal and leaving loopholes through which professionals could potentially engage in unethical behavior without reprisal.
At the end of last year, the APA officially decided not pursue a formal complaint against Dr. John Leso, a psychologist and APA member who consulted on the torture of Mohammed al-Qahtani at Guantanamo Bay following 9/11. In a blog post earlier this month, Frank Summers, the current president of Division 39 (Psychoanalysis) of the APA, condemned this action as the latest in a series of negligent and hypocritical decisions by the APA regarding the ethics of torture.
The APA is a multifaceted and inescapably bureaucratic organization that acts, among other roles, as accrediting body, pedagogical resource, professional liability insurance provider, and conduct regulator. Unsurprisingly within such a complex structure, the motivation to sustain and expand the field of psychology and livelihood of psychologists often comes into conflict with matters of social responsibility and social justice. There is little I can add to Dr. Summers’ impassioned address; I can only share his dismay that in this instance the APA seems to have chosen self-protection and maintenance of the status quo over taking a firm and unambiguous stance on a matter of human rights.
As psychologists we have a responsibility not only to those with whom we work — and how embarrassing that we apparently needed to explicitly delineate “no torturing” as part of that responsibility — but also to the systems in which we work. Recently, a supervisor asked a group of my colleagues to each define (or try to define) what we do as clinical psychologists in our own minds. While others described the value of psychotherapy and clinical work in more articulate ways than I could hope to muster, my contribution was to state that in broad terms I believe the field of psychology — particularly psychoanalytically-informed psychology — provides a necessary countercultural service. Human society is filled with systems big and small, internal and external, that perpetuate our suffering. Psychologists, at their best, offer a new vantage point on the rigid and problematic aspects of daily life that we otherwise will tend to go along with, unthinking and unaware. Therefore, complicity with corrupt or inhumane structures — whether a specific workplace environment, a hospital network, or a government — is contrary to the very function of psychologists within society.
In its own distorted way, APA’s behavior regarding the ethics of torture may be an attempt to act in the service of its members, but it is ultimately a betrayal of the psychological discipline, and by extension the basic humanity that discipline ought to represent. Dr. Summers is blunt in laying out the options of dues-paying APA members who are appalled by recent developments:
Many of our members have already left the APA over this issue, and now with the Leso decision more are beginning to follow suit. As individuals, we must either resign from an unethical organization or be unrelenting in our insistence that our voices of opposition be heard.