Decades of prior research by social psychologists had already identified human tendencies likely to lead to poor choices in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. So what went wrong and where are we now?
For many Americans, the weeks and months following the attacks of September 11, 2001 were a volatile mixture of unbridled fear, staggering grief, patriotic fervor, and worldwide solidarity. We were distraught over possible future attacks, we sought ways to help those in greatest need, our country’s flag suddenly appeared everywhere, and we heard expressions of support—“We’re all Americans now!”—from around the globe.
For some of us, however, there was also a dark foreboding about how our government might respond to the carnage. And we soon learned that the new “war on terror” would be propelled by vengeance, with little respect for human rights and open disdain for international law. Indeed, the Bush Administration made this apparent that very first month, warning “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists”; “It’s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal”; and “After 9/11 the gloves come off.”
What wasn’t so clear was that my own profession—psychology—would take two sharply divergent paths during this early period, led by the American Psychological Association (APA). One was constructive, the other was not. On the high road, the APA helped to organize thousands of psychologists who offered their services pro bono to families of 9/11 victims, to rescue workers, to schools uncertain how to help fearful and traumatized children, and more. These and similar endeavors were invaluable contributions to the country’s healing and recovery.
The prospect of accountability for the perpetrators of torture and other human rights abuses seems ever elusive. Apologies and reparations from the U.S .government for the victims of torture continue to be unpaid debts.
But the APA also eagerly sought out opportunities for psychologists to participate in counterterrorism efforts and expand the profession’s stature in the eyes of the U.S. military-intelligence establishment. Not long thereafter, psychologists became involved in detention and interrogation operations—at secret CIA black sites, at Guantanamo Bay, and elsewhere—that were characterized by routinized abuse and sometimes by torture. Yet for years the APA’s leadership insisted that psychologists helped to keep these operations safe, legal, ethical, and effective. They were actually none of these things, as one disturbing report after another has painfully revealed.
It doesn't take hindsight to argue a simple point: both psychological science and the profession’s ethical foundations cautioned APA leaders against rushing to embrace what President Bush had called a “crusade” that would unleash the “full wrath of the United States.” For example, decades of prior research by social psychologists had already identified human tendencies likely to lead to poor choices in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. We opt for conformity in response to social pressure; we put aside personal reservations and obey authorities who demand our compliance; we overestimate the likelihood of dreadful but improbable events; and we’re especially susceptible to propaganda and demagoguery during times of fear and crisis. In addition, clinical psychologists had long known that cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment or torture devastates the human mind, often leaving the victims irreparably broken and unable to ever escape nightmares and flashbacks or ever establish trusting relationships again.
Eventually, after years of outrage, protest, and mobilization from so-called dissident psychologists (I count myself among them) who opposed the APA’s accommodative stance toward the White House, Pentagon, and CIA, in 2015 the association took important steps to restore the profession’s commitment to “Do No Harm.” For instance, APA policy now prohibits psychologists from participating in national security interrogations and restricts the circumstances under which they can work at Guantanamo Bay and similar sites.
But these ethics reforms have been under attack from the day they were adopted. Powerful factions within and external to the APA—some military psychologists, the Defense Department, and defense contractors, among others—have pushed to turn back the clock. Their efforts continue today. They seek to expand the roles available to psychologists in the military-intelligence arena, even if those professional activities are designed to dispense with informed consent, to inflict harm, and to avoid monitoring by outside ethics boards.
This is cause for serious concern. Professional associations, like the APA, and other civil society organizations have crucial roles to play as guardrails in a democratic society. We give them power, privileges, and the public trust. In exchange, we count on them to stand up for human rights and oppose government misconduct. When these groups abandon these responsibilities, the consequences can be dire. History is clear about that.
Twenty-two years—a full generation—have now passed. That should be more than enough time to learn some sobering lessons. Yet apparently not. Guantanamo, a moral stain on this country, is still open. Trials for the alleged plotters of the attacks and justice for 9/11 families remain on hold, contaminated by torture-obtained evidence. The prospect of accountability for the perpetrators of torture and other human rights abuses seems ever elusive. Apologies and reparations from the U.S .government for the victims of torture continue to be unpaid debts.
As for the APA, US psychology’s most prominent voice still seems unwilling to do anything that could jeopardize its carefully nurtured ties to the military-intelligence establishment. This needs to change. The world’s largest psychological association must find the fortitude—and independence—necessary to place ethics firmly over expediency, and to insist that certain fraught activities in national security settings are off-limits for psychologists. It’s something the APA owes to the public, to current and future members of the profession, and to all who’ve been harmed by the war on terror’s tragic excesses.