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Friday, June 16, 2006

Power corrupts

There is no serious question that interrogation techniques at Guantanamo Bay were designed using techniques and insights from the science of psychology or that interrogators relied on medical doctors to design individual programs for detainees. (The Democracy Now! interview with Jane Mayer who wrote the definitive article for "The New Yorker" in this subject, can be accessed here and here.) This, of course, raises an ethical question for psychiatrists and psychologists. Since at least 1985, the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association have been on record as supporting the UN Declaration and Convention against Torture, the UN Principles of Medical Ethics, and the joint Congressional Resolution opposing torture which Reagan signed into law in 1984. The American Psychiatric Association recently voted to discourage any of its members from participating in interrogation technigues or interrogations in Gitmo. So the Pentagon responded:

Pentagon officials said Tuesday they would try to use only psychologists, not psychiatrists, to help interrogators devise strategies to get information from detainees at places like Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. The new policy follows by little more than two weeks an overwhelming vote by the American Psychiatric Association discouraging its members from participating in those efforts. Stephen Behnke, director of ethics for the counterpart group for psychologists, the American Psychological Association, said psychologists knew not to participate in activities that harmed detainees. But he also said the group believed that helping military interrogators made a valuable contribution because it was part of an effort to prevent terrorism.
The distinction is a simple one: psychiatrists are MD's; as Robert Jay Lifton pointed out, they take an oath to "first do no harm." Psychologists take no such oath, and while some are involved in healing practices, some are simply behavorial scientists. But don't take my word for it:

William Winkenwerder Jr., the assistant secretary of Defense for health affairs who approved the new policy, said it was written to ensure that healthcare professionals play an appropriate role. The policy attempts to draw a clear distinction between medical personnel who care for the health of detainees and mental health professionals, called "behavioral science consultants," who assist interrogators.
And if you don't like a bureaucrat's word, you can always get a justification from the American Psychological Association. Dr. Gerald Koocher is the APA President, and he tap-danced on the head of this ethical pin this morning on Democracy Now!

In the entertainments of my childhood, the "mad scientist" was the one who used the knowledge and power of science purely for purposes of power; he was the person who had lost his humanity, had, like Faust, sold his soul to the devil in order to gain knowledge and with it, power. This is what the pursuit of power over our enemies has wrought: we aren't even arguing anymore about whether or not we should be torturing people, but about who should be involved.

Dr. Koocher neatly and very legalistically sidesteps any questions of moral responsibility or even humanity in his debate: he answers all issues with the corporate passive voice, or tries to make distinctions between those who gain knowledge in order to heal, and those who gain knowledge in order to wield power, which is what his distinction between clinical and research psychologists comes down to. The government is disclaiming the very activity Jane Mayer and others have documented and complained about:

Winkenwerder, in a conference call with reporters, said the "consultants" did not take part in interrogations. They make psychological assessments of prisoners, he said, but are not allowed to shape interrogations with their knowledge of a subject's phobias or medical vulnerabilities.
But that distinction is more likely to be honored in the breach than in the letter of regulations:

Under the guidelines [of the Army Field Manual], the consultants are permitted to "make psychological assessments of the character, personality, social interactions, and other behavioral characteristics of detainees." They can also train military personnel on "safe and effective interrogation methods" and advise them on the "potential effects of cultural and ethnic characteristics of subjects."

The rules, however, bar them from "the use of physical or mental health information regarding any detainee in a manner that would result in inhumane treatment or not be in accordance with applicable law."
But "applicable law" includes the Geneva Conventions and federal laws against torture, as well as the 1985 Joint Resolution of the American Psychiatric and Psychological Associations, none of which seems to have affected matters at Gitmo in the recent past. And since Attorney General Gonzalez redefined "torture" to mean "pain 'equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death,' " what, pray tell, does "inhuman treatment" mean? And the positives that consultants can do, under the Army Field manual, sound very much like what the BISCUIT teams were doing. So what has changed?

Our morality. Our moral standing in the world. Our national soul. We have sold it all, for a mess of pottage. And our leaders keep selling it, in a frantic bid to recoup their obvious losses. We cannot close Gitmo because the President doesn't want to try terrorist cases in open court, where the Government will have to produce evidence against the defendants. "National security" is the new euphemism for "we're from the government; trust us." As Stephen Colbert said last night, a detainee who is innocent but has been held in Gitmo for four years, is no longer innocent; he's probably mad enough to want to kill an American or two. Which, by the President's logic, means we cannot now release him.

We really have met the enemy; and he really is us. And Dom Crossan's translation of Jesus' saying seems truer and truer: "Only the destitute are innocent."


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