Psychologists, lawyers and physicians were complicit in the United States military’s torture of prisoners in the wake of Sept. 11, psychologist Steven Reisner says.
A panel discussion, “Experimenting with Torture: Psychology, Morality and the Law,” drew around 60 people from the medical, legal and psychiatric professions, as well as members of the clergy and the wider community, to the Law School Wednesday night. Reisner, a clinical assistant professor at New York University, spoke about his efforts to use professional codes of ethics to prevent psychologists and doctors from participating in torture.
“It turns out that if you interview survivors of torture, in 50 percent of cases you will find that there was a doctor or a health professional involved in the torture,” he said. “To some extent it makes sense, because psychologists and physicians are the ones who understand the vulnerabilities of the mind.”
He described how after 9/11, the U.S. Department of Justice reinterpreted international laws against torture to permit the use of harsh interrogation techniques on detainees. Under this reinterpretation, government officials concluded that torture was acceptable if it did not intend to cause “severe and lasting physical and mental harm,” Reisner said.
The military then hired medical professionals — physicians and psychologists — to be present during torture situations and attest that no “severe and lasting” harm was being done. This resulted in a sort of ongoing experimentation, by which the professionals would watch the torture and try to improve the techniques, Reisner said.
It was the psychologists who created the actual torture protocols, he added, which he described as “nightmares.” They approved techniques such as hitting, intense cold, isolation, and religious and sexual humiliation, he said.
“These psychologists would not only administer the torture, but they would guarantee by their presence that it wouldn’t cause severe mental harm,” Reisner said, adding that he thinks this behavior should not be ethically permissible.
The claim that “I am only following orders” is not a legitimate defense for unethical acts, he said.
He and other psychologists worked to change the ethics code for the American Psychological Association so that a command could not supersede ethical obligations, Reisner said. But he added that the U.S. Department of Defense issued its own statement, declaring that what psychologists and physicians do in the name of intelligence is automatically ethical.
“We used to have a higher authority, whether it was constitutional law, international law, or the memory of Nuremberg and the Holocaust,” Reisner said. “We used to believe that we were beholden to human rights and moral authority. In the last 10 years, that has collapsed.”
After Reisner’s keynote address, three panelists from the Law School, the Divinity School and the School of Medicine provided perspectives from their fields.
Medical school professor Thomas Duffy said that doctors who are asked to participate in torture know that what they are doing is wrong, but may lack the moral strength to speak out.
“We need to train our physicians to know how to speak up, and provide them with the strength and resilience to do so,” he said.
Frederick Simmons, an assistant professor of ethics at the Divinity School, spoke about “divided loyalties” and the conflicting obligations professionals may face between their values and duties.
Law school lecturer Hope Metcalf said that psychologists, physicians and lawyers are not the only ones to blame for perpetuating torture.
“This is not just a problem for the experts,” she said. “It concerns all of us and all of our collective morals. We need help in creating more popular demand for an ethical code of conduct.”
Attendees Thomas O’Rourke, the pastor of the Ascension Church of Hamden, and nurse Anne Somsel agreed.
“It’s the average person that’s going to be the jumping-off point for any improvement,” O’Rourke said.
Somsel said she was impressed by the panelists and their call for the public to be more active in denouncing torture.
The event was sponsored by the Orville H. Schell, Jr. Center for International Human Rights, the Law School, the Divinity School, the Chaplain’s Office and Reclaiming the Prophetic Voice, an interfaith advocacy organization.