The Psychology of Torture


Like most Americans, I was appalled as I read the recent U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the C.I.A.’s treatment of detainees in the war on terror.

As the 2014 president of the American Psychological Association (A.P.A.) – the nation’s largest association of psychologists – I was particularly outraged that the two psychologists involved in the torture program, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, so seriously and inexcusably ignored the basic principles of the psychology profession: do no harm and respect human dignity.

If the allegations are true, what this pair did was pervert psychological science to break down and dehumanize detainees in a misguided effort to extract information. It is clear to me that their actions constituted torture.

There is some ongoing debate about whether the Bush-era torture program elicited information that helped prevent subsequent acts of terrorism. My response to the debate is twofold. First, regardless of whether torture is effective (which I personally don’t believe it is), it is wrong.

Second, there is a growing body of research on interrogation science – the study of how to conduct interviews with detainees in ways that are constructive (i.e., that lead to good information, and are respectful of human rights).

recognize that the world can be a dangerous place, but abandoning basic human principles and the rule of law is not the answer. Going forward, this new science of appropriate interview and interrogation techniques should inform all national security activities.

Torture is wrong. There are no exceptions – not even that supposed ticking time bomb that some have claimed the United States faced right after 9/11. The APA Ethics Committee has stated “Torture in any form, at any time, in any place, and for any reason is unethical for psychologists and wholly inconsistent with membership in the American Psychological Association.” Our association’s policies incorporate language taken directly from The United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment states that “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”

Mitchell and Jessen are not members of the A.P.A., and are therefore beyond the reach of our ethics enforcement program, but if the allegations about their actions are true, they should be held accountable for their serious violations of human rights and U.S. and international law.

The first principle of the A.P.A.’s Code of Ethics, which serves as a touchstone for all our actions as psychologists, and as human beings, is this: “Psychologists strive to benefit those with whom they work and take care to do no harm.” Our discipline is firmly committed to respecting people’s rights and dignity, which is also stated in our Code of Ethics.

The pain and outrage I feel in reaction to the findings of the Senate Intelligence Committee isn’t just my outrage – it is the fury of psychologists everywhere.

The A.P.A. will continue to speak out against torture and other forms of cruel or inhuman treatment for as long as necessary.

-- by Nadine Kaslow, provided to BBJ by The MarkNews

Nadine Kaslow, PhD, is the 2014 President of the American Psychological Association. She is also a professor with tenure at Emory University School of Medicine department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences.

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