Imagine, a candidate for president who, a year or so ago, no one would have considered electable. Now the person is the front-runner, with a groundswell of grass-roots support, threatening the sense of inevitability of the Establishment candidates. No, I'm not talking about the U.S. presidential race, but the race for president of the largest association of psychologists in the world, the American Psychological Association (APA). At the heart of the election is a raging debate over torture and interrogations. While the other healing professions, including the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association, bar their members from participating in interrogations, the APA leadership has fought against such a restriction.
Frustrated with the APA, a New York psychoanalyst, Dr. Steven Reisner, has thrown his hat into the ring. Last year, Reisner and other dissident psychologists formed the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology in an attempt to force a moratorium against participation by APA members in harsh interrogations. During the initial phase of this year's selection process, Reisner received the most nominating votes. He is running on a platform opposing the use of psychologists to oversee abusive and coercive interrogations of prisoners at Guantanamo, secret CIA black sites or anywhere else international law or the Geneva Conventions are said not to apply.
The issue came to a head at the 2007 APA annual convention. After days of late-night negotiations, the moratorium came up for a climactic vote. We saw a surreal scene on the convention floor: Uniformed military were out in force. Men and women in desert camo and Navy whites worked the APA Council of Representatives, and officers in crisp dress uniforms stepped to the microphones.
Military psychologists insisted that they help make interrogations safe, ethical and legal, and cited instances where psychologists allegedly intervened to stop abuse. "If we remove psychologists from these facilities, people are going to die!" boomed Col. Larry James of the U.S. Army, chief psychologist at Guantanamo Bay and a member of the APA governing body. Dr. Laurie Wagner, a Dallas psychologist, shot back, "If psychologists have to be there in order to keep detainees from being killed, then those conditions are so horrendous that the only moral and ethical thing to do is to protest by leaving."
The moratorium failed, and instead a watered-down resolution passed, outlining 19 harsh interrogation techniques that were banned, but only if "used in a manner that represents significant pain or suffering or in a manner that a reasonable person would judge to cause lasting harm." In other words, this loophole allowed, you can rough people up, just don't do permanent harm.
Immediately after the vote, Reisner spoke out at a packed town hall meeting: "If we cannot say, 'No, we will not participate in enhanced interrogations at CIA black sites,' I think we have to seriously question what we are as an organization and, for me, what my allegiance is to this organization, or whether we might have to criticize it from outside the organization at this point."
Reisner and others began withholding dues. Prominent APA members resigned, and the best-selling author of "Reviving Ophelia," Mary Pipher, returned her APA Presidential Citation award. After several months of bad publicity and internal negotiations, an emergency committee redrafted that resolution, removing the loopholes and affirming the outright prohibition of 19 techniques, like mock executions and waterboarding.
When I asked Dr. Reisner, the son of Holocaust survivors, why he would want to head the organization that he has battled for several years, he told me: "If I have this opportunity to make a change, I have a responsibility to do it. I never had the intention of being involved, but the only way to ensure this be changed was by claiming the democratic process in the name of human rights and social-justice issues. I was hoping that mass withholding of dues and mass resignations would shame the APA to come to its senses. It made them take a big step but didn't go far enough."
He expanded: "American people are sick of the reputation of the United States as torturers, as people who abuse prisoners. American people want to see a restoration of values from war to health care. I think what happens in the APA should point to a direction for the whole country."
The APA's annual meeting is this summer, in Boston. Expect interrogation to be the major issue confronting the members gathered there. Final voting for the APA president starts in October. The APA and the United States will determine their next presidents at about the same time. In both elections, a thorough debate on torture should be central.
Amy Goodman is the host of "Democracy Now!," a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on 650 stations in North America.
© 2008 Amy Goodman