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A Psychologist's Guantanamo Nightmare

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The museum had several other exhibits, including a few that disappointingly were still unfinished. Although these were shrouded in curtains, their accompanying plaques piqued my interest and imagination. One was cryptically titled "Back to the Future: Primum Non Nocere?" I wondered whether it would portray an interrogation scene a hundred years hence, in which a psychologist -- no longer encumbered by old-fashioned standards of beneficence and non-maleficence -- is using some futuristic mind control technique to ruthlessly torment a teenage prisoner, for "the greater good." Another concealed diorama was simply called "Brothers in Arms." I imagined that it might show selected APA leaders striking a pose reminiscent of the Justice League superheroes, as they stand alongside CIA operatives and Navy SEALs. 

The final display we passed was a lifelike re-creation of a waterboarding torture session. The scene depicted a distraught, immobilized prisoner strapped to an inclined gurney as interrogation personnel poured a saline solution through a cloth covering his nose and mouth. A few feet away stood a robotic psychologist in a white lab coat. His head, connected to the ceiling by a thin wire, nodded up and down continuously. The display was titled "Safeguard: Preventing Behavioral Drift," and the description noted that the presence of the psychologist ensured that the detainee did not experience "serious or permanent harm" during the near drowning.

Not surprisingly, the last stop on the tour was the museum's new gift shop. Inside was a range of inexpensively priced items, thanks in part to subsidies from the mandatory gift shop assessment that was now part of APA membership dues. There were bobbing-head dolls of APA luminaries, past and present. There was a deck of playing cards with grotesquely distorted images of psychologists who had foolishly spent years unsuccessfully trying to reform the APA. There were miniature flags with new APA mottos, like "No Regrets" and "APA Strong." But not wanting to miss the afternoon beach trip, I made a hasty decision and selected a counterterrorism coffee mug with a simple message no self-respecting psychologist could argue with: "Be polite, be professional, be prepared to kill."


Addendum. There are important steps that the American Psychological Association can undertake immediately to ensure that nightmare scenarios like this never become reality. The APA can annul and repudiate the illegitimate 2005 PENS Report. The APA can enforce the 2008 member referendum prohibiting psychologists from working in national security settings (like Guantanamo) that violate the U.S. Constitution or international law. The APA can adjudicate the six-year-old ethics complaint against John Leso and remove the statute of limitations for violations involving torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. The APA can establish clear ethical restrictions on psychologist involvement in national security operations and research where individuals are targeted for harm, where voluntary informed consent is absent, and where timely outside ethical oversight is infeasible. The APA can formally support bills introduced in state legislatures that would prohibit licensed health provider participation in the ill treatment of prisoners. The APA can invite and fully cooperate with an independent investigation of the Association itself, in order to promote appropriate measures aimed at greater transparency and accountability and institutional reform. I encourage fellow psychologists and other interested individuals to support these initiatives and to call upon APA leaders to do the same.

Note: This essay originally appeared in Counterpunch.

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Roy Eidelson is a psychologist who studies, writes about, and consults on the role of psychological issues in political, organizational, and group conflict settings. He is president of Eidelson Consulting, a past president of Psychologists for (more...)

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