Moral Drift and the American Psychological Association: The Road to Torture

By Welch, Bryant L. | Social Justice, Summer-Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Moral Drift and the American Psychological Association: The Road to Torture


Welch, Bryant L., Social Justice


FEW NOW DISPUTE THAT PSYCHOLOGISTS, THE AMERICAN PSYCHOLOGICAL Association (APA) itself, and several prominent members of its staff and governance have provided support to America s shameful role in the torture of detainees during the post-September 11 era. (1)

Psychologists provided the research that formed the underpinnings of the torture practices, designed the techniques of torture themselves, advised torturers on a case-by-case basis on how to most effectively "break" individual detainees, and colluded with the Bush Justice Department in creating a semantically deceptive system designed to whitewash the whole process. The APA, unlike other major health organizations, consistently defeated attempts to declare the participation of psychologists in these interrogations unethical.

In an epilogue, it was reported that a prominent psychologist who developed relationships with the government and military officials during this process has received a large sole source grant to treat our military troops suffering from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) with techniques from "positive psychology." (2) PTSD is an extremely painful, potentially chronic, psychiatric illness. Its victims are besieged by frightening "flashbacks," alternating states of emotional numbing and emotional terror, general mood instability, sleeplessness, and a series of other painful and disruptive symptoms. Not surprisingly, left untreated, many of its victims will succumb to substance abuse in an attempt to self-medicate or commit suicide. A few will even turn violent.

Favoritism in the awarding of government contracts is nothing new; neither is the waste of taxpayers' dollars that results from sole source contracts. Most egregious in this case, however, is that the treatment purchased in such an expensive and suspicious context is by no means state-of-the-art trauma treatment. In some cases, it may even prove to be very harmful to our troops, who have given so much and deserve competent treatment. Given the limited alternative resources, they are very unlikely to get that with the newly announced military program.

An especially tragic aspect of this development is that no treatment for psychological suffering has benefited more from recent advances than the care for trauma victims. The "positive psychology treatment," which was awarded the sole source contract for primary treatment, does not reflect these advances.

Rogue scientists applying their expertise for evil are nothing new. Mental health professionals from psychiatry and psychology have historically participated in such efforts. Several years ago, a prominent psychologist testified before Congress in support of the tobacco industry (3) and, more recently, another one used his prestige to give the imprimatur of legitimacy to managed health care, which has been devastating to mental health patients for almost two decades. (4)

Most shocking about the role of psychology in torture, however, has been the complicity of the APA. The national organization for U.S. psychologists, it is also the largest organization of psychologists in the world. Its longstanding tradition as a bastion of respect for individual dignity and social justice is evidenced in its history of taking strong advocacy positions on behalf of ethnic minorities, women, gay men and lesbians, and persons with disabilities. Psychologists have used research data and clinical sensitivity in support of these basic principles of human dignity.

Investigative journalists have now documented the descent of the United States into torture. How did psychology come to play such an important role in this? The recent debacle inside the APA is a painful lesson in just how wrong things can go if a perfect storm of mal-intentioned and beguiling leadership, gullible followers, and passive, disbelieving onlookers coalesces.

Before addressing that ultimate question, one must consider three things. …

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