The soul of the torturer


The American Psychological Association has voted down a proposal to ban US psychologists from assisting interrogators in US military prisons "in which detainees are deprived of adequate protection of their human rights."

The argument that was used to oppose the ban was that the presence of psychologists at these prisons could somehow prevent abuses from taking place. I would argue, however, that it is useful for torturers to have psychologists present in order to give their crimes against humanity a certain veneer of respectability.

One military psychologist claimed that without psychologists participating, people would die. In response, Laurie Wagner, a psychologist from Dallas, argued, "If psychologists have to be there so detainees don't get killed, those conditions are so horrendous that the only moral and ethical thing is to leave." I agree. Psychologists should not be assisting torturers in any way--just as, I might add, medical doctors should not be assisting at executions.

I am reminded of a scene in the remarkable 1969 film "Army of Shadows", about the French resistance during the Nazi occupation. At one point in the movie, the resistance had decided to launch a daring rescue of a comrade who was held in a notorious Gestapo prison in Lyons. Pretending to be pro-German medical personnel, several of them entered the prison with forged transfer papers for the prisoner. The doctor at the prison said that the prisoner had been too badly beaten and would not survive the road trip to any ostensible new destination, and he thus refused to grant permission for the transfer. I was struck by the irony; here was a Gestapo doctor at a torture center expressing concern for the health of a prisoner whose terrible state was directly due to conditions at the very facility where the doctor worked. Here we saw a dramatic illustration of the sort of twisted logic that justifies the use of care providers at a torture facility.

This contradiction was further underscored in a subtle way during that same scene, when one of the French resistance members who was pretending to be a nurse gave the Nazi doctor a crisp, formal Nazi salute and a clearly enunciated "Heil" for the fuehrer. The doctor responded perfunctorily, muttering his "Heil" in response and barely even raising his arm to salute. That was all we ever saw of the doctor character, and yet I couldn't help but project onto him the notion that the contradiction between his life-saving profession and the brutal reality of the world he inhabited had turned him into a lethargic, empty shell of a man. In a sense, it seemed like the director (Jean-Pierre Melville, one of France's greatest) was suggesting that participating in torture injures not just the body of the victim, but the soul of the torturer.

I am sorry that the APA backed out of taking the strongest possible moral stand against participation in the interrogation process at facilities that torture. Psychologists should not allow themselves to be used as tools in the legitimation of torture.