Do no harm

By Michelle Chen May 08, 2009

The ethical questions at the intersection of psychology and national security can make your head spin. Newly released email exchanges, from a listserv associated with the American Psychological Association, affirm various other news reports that document’ how psychological professionals were intricately involved in shaping "counter-terrorism" interrogation methods as government consultants. The email messages, published by ProPublica, don’t explicitly endorse torture. In fact, many of the key psychologists involved with the interrogations have since spoken out against torture and reportedly intervened to prevent harm in some cases. But in the wake of scandals like Abu Ghraib and the government’s stonewalling about its’ “coercive” questioning, human rights activists say mental health professionals should play no role in guiding methods that inflict brutality on detainees. Torture as a psychological instrument has deep roots in American civilian society as well, used to subjugate not necessarily the foreign enemy, but the Other. While torture has been defended as a way to thwart terrorism abroad, it has also abetted America’s homegrown terrorist movements. Northwestern law professor Dorothy Roberts has drawn parallels between today’s torture scandals and the naked displays of cruelty that roiled in the segregated South. On the spectacle of lynching, Roberts wrote in a 2007 Columbia Human Rights Law Review article:

The public torture of blacks accused of offending the racial order demonstrated whites’ unlimited power and blacks’ utter worthlessness. This nation’s rights, liberties, and justice were meant for white people only; blacks meant nothing before the law.

And as with the photographs of traumatized Iraqi prisoners, this brutality became an almost pornographic media form—a statement of impunity that enforced a regime of fear:

By leaving disfigured black bodies hanging like “strange fruit” from tree limbs, lynch mobs reinstated the white power structure threatened by blacks’ freedom. Spectacle lynchings proclaimed the futility of the freedmen’s new civil rights, literally reinstating black bodies as the property of whites that could be chopped to pieces for their entertainment. The tortured black body displayed for public consumption affirmed the dominance of whites and exclusion of blacks from citizenship, and it served as a warning to anyone who defied this racial order

The terror mediated by lynchings, of course, was much more public than the torture carried out by the Bush administration, as reported so far. Lynchings articulated a political message. As the ultimate act of dehumanization, such spectacular violence takes on a vernacular of its own. It could be a testament to evolving consensus on human rights that more recent incidents of torture have been tidily covered up by high-level officials. (Then again, some still try to openly justify torture by boasting of its “success” as an investigative tool.) Yet on a more insidious level, the endlessly looped Abu Ghraib images in the media may have had a numbing effect on the public (what Silva J.A. Talvi called “torture fatigue”). The reduction of torture to a “shocking” 30-second news clip is uniquely desensitizing, massaging passive outrage into commercial complicity and active ignorance. Torture, violence and degradation visited upon poor, disenfranchised peoples around the world traces a historical continuum bound up in imperialism and white supremacist ideology. A 2004 ZNet essay by Sherene Razack, a professor of Sociology and Equity studies at the University of Toronto, tied the portraits of Abu Ghraib to the self-documented abuses committed by Western troops in Somalia:

We should understand the violence in these photos as colonial violence, the violence that is enacted whenever people feel the need to draw the line between the civilized and the uncivilized. This is W.E. Dubois’s famous colour line and race wars are required to keep it in place. Ordinary people get drawn into marking the colour line. They learn to think of themselves as people who can only feel whole and in control through dominating racially inferior Others…. Because it is the violence that comes out of a colonial encounter, that is an encounter that the soldiers understand to be one between conquerors and racially, morally and culturally inferior peoples, we should also understand that prisoner abuse in Iraq (and in North America) is violence done in our name.

We may not want to imagine ourselves in such scenarios, whether through empathizing with victims or grasping the mindset of perpetrators. But we may have to, in order for society to collectively own up to the unspeakable. Is there a role for psychologists in the interrogation room? Is there a role for any of us? We’re all somewhere in the background. Image: APA protest (PsyRel)