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News :: Human Rights : International : Politics
A Question of Complicity: Torture and the Role of Mental Health Professionals
08 Dec 2005
Modified: 09 Dec 2005
The past two years have witnessed growing accusations of torture and coercive and inhumane interrogation practices against the United States military and covert agencies in prisons from Cuba to Iraq. Beneath that terrible story lies another: the ominous possibility that military physicians, psychologists and psychiatrists have been complicit in these practices -- indeed may have helped to design some of them. In response, the Ignacio Martín-Baró Fund for Mental Health and Human Rights sponsored a recent public forum and has launched a petition campaign aimed both at the U.S. Congress and the American Psychological Association, demanding independent investigations of these allegations and an end to the involvement of medical and mental health professionals is military interrogations. Information about the Fund and the ongoing petition campaign are available on its website: http://www.martinbarofund.org
A Question of Complicity
Torture and the Role of Mental Health Professionals

By Ann Murphy

The past two years have witnessed a growing number of accusations of torture and coercive and inhumane interrogation practices leveled against the United States military and covert agencies in prisons from Cuba to Iraq. Beneath that terrible story lies another: the ominous possibility that military physicians, psychologists and psychiatrists have been complicit in these practices -- indeed may have helped to design some of them. If true, this complicity violates the most fundamental ethics of the mental health profession, and illustrates the spreading moral contamination of the administration’s so-called War on Terror.

Responding to these accusations, the Ignacio Martín-Baró Fund for Mental Health and Human Rights (http://www.martinbarofund.org) sponsored a Forum at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology at Cambridge on November 13, 2005, to focus on the issue. The Fund is a small progressive grassroots organization that seeks to further community-based activism for mental health and human rights by supporting progressive, grassroots groups throughout the world that are challenging institutional repression and confronting the mental health consequences of violence and injustice in their communities. The event was co-sponsored by Global Lawyers and Physicians, Physicians for Human Rights, and Psychologists for Social Responsibility.

The forum was also the 16th annual commemoration of the assassination of Ignacio Martín-Baró, a Jesuit and liberation social psychologist based in El Salvador. On November 16, 1989, he and five other Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter were killed by 24 Salvadoran soldiers. Nineteen of those accused assassins were trained at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia.

Panelists included Dr. M. Brinton Lykes, Fund member and Boston College professor, as well as Dr. Sondra Crosby, M.D., a Professor of Socio-Medical Sciences at Boston University School of Medicine and Dr. Bernice Lott, Professor Emerita of Psychology and Women’s Studies at the University of Rhode Island.

Allegations of torture and of complicity by physicians and mental health professionals date back several years. According to Dr. Robert J. Lifton, noted author and Visiting Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, “[v]arious medical protocols — notably, the World Medical Association Declaration of Tokyo in 1975 — prohibit . . . medical complicity in torture. Moreover, the Hippocratic Oath declares, “I will use treatment to help the sick according to my ability and judgment, but never with a view to injury and wrongdoing” (“Doctors and Torture,” New England Journal of Medicine, July 29, 2004). However, Lifton noted in an interview on Democracy Now! that was shown at the Forum, “American physicians and psychologists have been active in interrogation processes at the edge of torture, and . . . we have these facts from very reputable international human rights organizations, including the Red Cross” (Psychological Warfare? A Debate on the Role of Mental Health Professionals in Military Interrogations at Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib and Beyond, Thursday, August 11, 2005).

Exploring these allegations in greater detail, Jane Mayer has drawn direct connections between reports of abuse in Guantánamo and “decades of research by American scientists into the psychological nature of warfare and captivity.” In particular, she traces connections between the psychological insights used by mental health professionals to train American military personnel to withstand interrogation in a program called SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) and strikingly similar techniques now being used against prisoners held by the United States military. These practices include violations of detainees’ religious beliefs, waterboarding, “noise stress,” and sexual humiliation (“The Experiment” The New Yorker, July 11 and 18, 2005).

In opening the Forum, Lykes cited Martín-Baró’s depiction of the effect of civil war on El Salvador. He argued that war becomes the focal point of people’s lives, and results in “an increasing polarization in society, so that people begin to look at others as either ‘enemies’ or ‘friends’; an increasing institutionalization of lying by those in power; and an increasing reliance on violence to resolve conflict” (Scott Wright, http://www.rtfcam.org/martyrs/UCA/15_years.htm).

Lykes observed that Martín-Baró’s words about the war in El Salvador in the 1980s all too accurately describe national life within the United States since 9/11. President George W. Bush and the United States Congress are waging a “War on Terror” in which military aggression in Iraq and the discourse of terror and terrorism at home are increasingly manipulated to create the conditions of social polarization described by Martín-Baró:

"Almost without realizing it, we have become accustomed to institutions being exactly the opposite of what they are meant to be: those responsible for guaranteeing our safety are the main source of insecurity; those in charge of justice defend abuse and injustice; those called on to enlighten and guide are the first to deceive and manipulate. The lie has come to permeate our existence to such an extent that we end up creating an imaginary world, whose only truth is -- precisely that it is a false world, and whose only pillar of support is the fear of reality, which is too “subversive” to be tolerated … In this environment of lies, thrown off balance by social polarization, with no place for sanity and reason, violence dominates life to such an extent that people begin to believe that violence is the only solution to the problem of violence itself." (Writings for a Liberation Psychology, 1994, pp. 113-114).


Also speaking at the forum was Dr. Sondra Crosby, a physician who works with torture survivors at the Boston Center for Refugee Health and Human Rights at Boston University Medical Center. Crosby called torture “the most degrading of all human experiences,” noting that it seeks to break the mind, body, spirit, and soul of individuals and communities. Referring to her work with survivors, she described the permanent physical and psychological scars of torture, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, loss of core beliefs and values, distrust, alienation, shame, and guilt. Crosby cited the pattern of reports coming from Guantánamo – detainees stripped naked, deprived of the Q’ran, shackled, strapped to their beds and force-fed during hunger strikes, prevented from prayer and washing, and subjected to sensory deprivation and isolation. She also stressed the terrible consequences of torture on those who inflict it, as well as their families, friends, and community.

The final speaker, Dr. Bernice Lott, traced the struggle among members within the American Psychological Association (APA) to convince that organization to take a strong and principled stand against any involvement by its members in torture or coercive interrogation. Petitions available at the Forum and on the Martín-Baró Fund website (http://www.martinbarofund.org) call on the APA to oppose all such practices and on Congress to pass the McCain Amendment prohibiting cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of persons in detention.

The Forum also featured excerpts from two recent media explorations of the issue: WGBH’s “Frontline: The Torture Question”, and “Democracy Now!: Psychological Warfare? A Debate on the Role of Mental Health Professionals in Military Interrogations at Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib and Beyond.”

The Ignacio Martín-Baró Fund for Mental Health and Human Rights was founded after the assassinations in El Salvador psychologists and other mental health activists in Boston and Berkeley, CA to honor Martín-Baró’s goals and ideas. An almost entirely volunteer organization, the Fund raises much of its money through annual bowlathons as well as events such as the recent Forum. It also receives support from the Funding Exchange, a progressive NYC-based non-profit foundation that supports change not charity. Over the past fifteen years the Fund has raised more than $620,000 to provide over 116 grants to non-governmental organizations in 23 countries, including Argentina, Guatemala, El Salvador, India, Kyrgyzstan, Mexico, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Northern Ireland, Peru, South Africa, the Philippines, Thailand and the United States.

To learn more about the Fund, to make a contribution and to sign the petitions, please go to the website: http://www.martinbarofund.org

For more details on the allegations of torture, see Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, M.D., “Doctors and Torture,” in the July 29, 2004 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, Jane Mayer’s “The Experiment,” in the July 11 and 18, 2005 issues of The New Yorker, and Steven H. Miles’s “Abu Ghraib: Its Legacy for Military Medicine,” in the August 21, 2004 issue of The Lancet, as well as WGBH’s “Frontline: The Torture Question,” and “Democracy Now!: Psychological Warfare? A Debate on the Role of Mental Health Professionals in Military Interrogations at Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib and Beyond” (Thursday, August 11, 2005). Access to all of these sources is available through the Martín-Baró website: (http://www.martinbarofund.org/events/Event%20Links%20-%2005.htm)

[PLEASE NOTE: If reproducing this article in any way, please credit both the author and The Student Underground, where it was first published. Thanks.]
See also:
http://www.thestudentunderground.org/article.php?id=123&issue=53
http://www.martinbarofund.org

This work is in the public domain
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