Ignored and Forgotten

Professional ethics in the War on Terror.

Image by Troy Page / truthout via Flickr

Though their actions invoke less dramatic imagery than the interrogators and prison guards who tortured and humiliated Muslim detainees at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, equally guilty are the legions of professionals who facilitated the abuse.

Although the principal maxim of medical ethics is “First do no harm,” psychologists and doctors working for the military and CIA actively assisted in the torture of human beings. Psychologists helped fine-tune techniques such as sleep deprivation, stress positions and waterboarding, and doctors often monitored harsh interrogations, intervening when necessary to keep struggling prisoners alive and alert so the questioning could continue.

How could medical professionals demonstrate such little empathy in the presence of human suffering?

“People are capable of incredible cruelty. It’s increased in circumstances where there aren’t clear rules and boundaries,” says psychoanalyst Dr. Stephen Soldz. “We dehumanized the enemy after 9/11. We did it as a culture and the military did it spectacularly well. Like many others, military doctors felt a duty to serve their country.”

In 2007 Dr. Soldz urged the American Psychological Association to ban psychologists from participating in the interrogation of terror suspects.

“Professional ethics are always weak,” he says. “We have wonderful statements by professional associations about what the ethics are, but many people don’t internalize them.”

Justice Department memos revealed that doctors with the CIA’s Office of Medical Services declared that depriving prisoners of sleep for upwards of 180 hours was not classified as torture, nor was hosing down detainees with freezing cold water for up to two-thirds of the time it takes hypothermia to set in.

“They signed up to be part of the CIA’s covert operations, so presumably their commitment to medical ethics was long gone,” Dr. Soldz explains.

Another group whose human empathy lost out to zealous patriotism and cold, hard professionalism were the lawyers who crafted the framework for the authorization of torture. It was their technical expertise in legal jargon that allowed the United States to follow the path of every oppressive state before it and justify its disregard for human rights through a mantra of security.

“A few bad apples” did not cause the degradation and anguish of thousands of Muslims in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay and an untold number of secret prisons around the world. Their pain was the product of system-wide moral failures by individuals whose conduct is supposed to be held to the highest professional standards.

The Justice Department recently determined that the lawyers who devised the technical justification for torture “exercised poor judgment” but were not guilty of professional misconduct. To this day there has been no investigation into the behavior of the medical personnel involved.

Kishore Mahbubani wrote, “In 1989, if anyone had dared to predict that within 15 years the foremost ‘beacon’ of human rights would become the first Western developed state to reintroduce torture, everyone would have shouted ‘impossible.’ Yet the impossible has happened!”

The speed with which the United States abandoned its principles and resorted to torture was startling. Centuries of progress were essentially abandoned overnight in a fit of fear and blind rage as the darkest potential of human nature was allowed to infect even the most venerable professions.

For there to be any chance of America reclaiming its moral legitimacy, President Obama’s government of hope and change must prosecute those responsible and refuse to allow the crimes of the recent past to be ignored, forgiven and forgotten.

–Blake Sifton