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From ‘Do No Harm’ to Torture

Eugene Robinson

Torture is a delicate business. The aim is to injure but not incapacitate—to inflict precisely enough pain and terror to break a subject’s will, but no more. To calibrate the proper degree of abuse, the torturer must have an accurate sense of how much agony the subject’s mind and body can tolerate.

In the Bush administration’s program of “enhanced interrogation,” this expertise was provided by doctors and psychologists—professionals who are supposed to heal and comfort. A new report by Physicians for Human Rights assembles the evidence and reaches a sickening but inescapable conclusion: “Health professionals played central roles in developing, implementing and providing justification for torture.” 

Dwell on that for a moment, especially if you believe the Bush administration’s decision to submit terrorism suspects to medieval interrogation practices was somehow justifiable—or even if you believe that torture was wrong but that now we should “look forward” and pretend it never happened. This is how torture warps a society and distorts its values.

Much of the information cited by Physicians for Human Rights had previously been unearthed, but some new details were disclosed in the CIA inspector general’s report released last week—revealing “a level of ethical misconduct that had not previously come to light,” in the words of the human rights group.

From sources that include published reports, an inquiry by the International Committee of the Red Cross and various documents pried out of the government by organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, here is some of what we know:

The interrogation program—using 11 abusive “enhanced” techniques, including waterboarding—was designed by two Ph.D. psychologists. The techniques, according to a statement released in April by American Psychological Association President James H. Bray, “are tantamount to torture as defined by APA and international law.”

Said the APA: “The central tenet of psychology’s code of ethics is, like that of medicine, to do no harm. It is unthinkable that any psychologist could assert that stress positions, forced nudity, sleep deprivation, exploiting phobias, and waterboarding—along with other forms of torture techniques that the American Psychological Association has condemned and prohibited—cause no lasting damage to a human being’s psyche.”

According to Bray, “There is one ethical response to an order to torture: Disobey the order.”

We know that medical doctors were asked to sign off on the “enhanced” techniques. We know from detainees themselves, as quoted by the Red Cross, that there was medical monitoring of waterboarding sessions. We know from the CIA inspector general’s report that a 2004 letter from a Justice Department official reauthorizing the use of waterboarding specified a maximum of two two-hour sessions per day, with both a doctor and a psychologist present.

From the torturer’s point of view, this probably looks like compassion—an attempt to ensure that interrogators didn’t go too far, that they didn’t cause permanent harm, that they stayed within bureaucratic guidelines. But from any other perspective, it’s simply and starkly grotesque.

That any medical doctor would help design or review a program of torture, let alone be present when an abusive interrogation amounting to torture was being conducted, would be a gross ethical violation.

The American Medical Association’s code of ethics “forcefully states medicine’s opposition to torture or coercive interrogation and prohibits physician participation in such activities,” according to a letter AMA officials sent to President Barack Obama in April. AMA guidelines state that “physicians must neither conduct nor directly participate in an interrogation,” and that doctors “must not monitor interrogations with the intention of intervening in the process, because this constitutes direct participation.”

So how was our government supposed to conduct abusive interrogations without the guidance of psychologists to tell them whether they were irreparably damaging the subject’s mind or physicians to tell them whether they were irreparably damaging the subject’s body? It would have been impossible.

Doctors and psychologists might have been able to prevent this whole shameful episode by refusing to participate. Instead, professionals who were trained in the healing arts used their experience and skill in a way that facilitated harm. They played a vital role in enabling torture.

I like to believe that some psychologists and physicians took a stand and said no. As for those who said yes, the law should hold them accountable—just as conscience, one hopes, is already doing.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

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-- Eugene Robinson

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