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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 9/8/21

U.S. Psychology's Unfinished Journey from 9/11

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As the 20th anniversary of September 11, 2001 nears, there will be many valuable reflections about that horrific day and about the subsequent "global war on terror" that devastated countless lives around the world. My own focus here is narrower: to briefly consider this disturbing two-decade period in relation to the American Psychological Association (APA) and professional psychology in the United States.

In the days following the terrorist attacks that targeted New York City and Washington, D.C., it quickly became apparent that the White House, the Department of Defense, and the CIA were prepared to ignore well-established international laws and human rights standards in pursuit of our adversaries. But at that time, it was less immediately obvious that some members of my own professionfellow psychologistswould choose to embrace and participate in the merciless "dark side" operations that took place at secret overseas "black sites," at the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba, and beyond. And then, as events unfolded further, it became even more surprising thatthrough acts of commission and omissionthese abusive and sometimes torturous operations would also find support within the leadership of the APA.

At any point, the APA could have joined with concerned human rights groups in seeking to constrain a U.S. military-intelligence establishment set on unbridled retribution that brutalized prisoners and diminished the country's moral standing around the world. But for the world's largest organization of psychologists, that tragically proved to be the proverbial road not taken.

To its credit, the APA did quickly mobilize its disaster response network of expert practitioners who worked with the Red Cross in offering psychological support to rescue workers and families of the victims of 9/11. But the APA moved just as rapidly in a very different direction, working to ensure that the Bush Administrationhaving promised a "crusade" with the "full wrath" of the United Stateswould view the association as a valued war-on-terror partner.

In addition to meetings on Capitol Hill, the APA organized invitation-only conferences and workshops that focused on psychology's potential contributions to ethically fraught counter-terrorism initiatives, with attendees from the CIA and other government agencies. These and similar outreach efforts continued unabated even as credible media reports emerged indicating that prisoners were being abused and that psychologists were involved in their mistreatment. Throughout these years, it seemed that the APA's focus was almost always on promoting what its members were capable of doing, and hardly ever on emphasizing what they should never do.

The APA's most consequential step down this ill-considered path was its 2005 task force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS). After a single weekend of meetings, the group concluded that it was indeed ethical for psychologists to participate in war-on-terror detention and interrogation operationsdespite the profession's do-no-harm ethical foundations and growing evidence of institutionalized prisoner abuse by U.S. forces. The PENS process was also rife with significant problems, including the predominance of military-intelligence representatives among the task force members; conflicts of interest among some of the participants; irregularities in the procedures adopted for both the meeting and the report; and an "emergency" approval vote that bypassed the APA's full governing body.

Nevertheless, APA leaders anticipated that the PENS Report would extinguish the fires of controversy within the profession. Instead, the report spurred the emergence and organization of vocal dissident psychologiststhrough groups like the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology, Psychologists for an Ethical APA, and Psychologists for Social Responsibilitywho opposed the APA's deferential and accommodative war-on-terror policies. Over the next decade, the association leadership's primary response to this opposition was to block all serious reform efforts. Their tactics included the adoption of weak, loophole-filled anti-torture resolutions that fell short of actually prohibiting abuse; the failure to enforce a membership-wide referendum that required the removal of psychologists from Guantanamo; the refusal by the ethics committee to modify a key standard that permitted a "just following orders" defense by psychologists involved in abuse; the undermining of an initiative to annul and repudiate the PENS Report; and the repeated failure to adequately investigate and pursue sanctions against psychologists alleged to have been involved in torture and abuse.

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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 a past president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, a member of (more...)

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