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Oppression and the APA Ethics Committee

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On December31, 2013, the Ethics Committee of the American Psychological Association declined to pursue disciplinary charges against US military psychologist Dr. John Leso.  According to the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology, the Ethics Committee does not dispute the following evidence:

From June 2002 until January 2003, Dr. Leso led a Behavioral Sciences Consultation Team that devised torturous interrogation strategies at Guantanamo Bay. Inflicted on a number of prisoners including, for example, Mohammed al-Qatani, the tortures included sleep deprivation, 30 day periods of isolation, hooding and handcuffing, exposure to temperature extremes, ‘the design of scenarios to convince the detainee he might experience a painful or fatal outcome,’ sexual humiliation, among other violence.”

In spite of this, the committee maintained it lacked sufficient evidence to pursue action.  Even more bizarrely, the APA Ethics Committee insisted that its refusal to act was consistent with its absolute prohibition of psychologist participation in torture.

In defending its decision, the committee asserted the following about Dr. Leso:

(a) he did not “request to become involved with detainee interrogations”;
(b) he was an “early-­‐career psychologist trained as a health care provider”;
(c) he reportedly “sought consultation and argued…in favor of rapport-­‐building approaches;”
(d) APA did not issue its first policy on interrogations until 2005.

The Coalition for an Ethical Psychology adequately refutes these claims in a recent report.( http://www.ethicalpsychology.org/materials/Coalition-Responds-to-APA-Leso-Decision.pdf)

In this post I want to focus on the moral incoherence of the response. It is absurd to assert an unc0nditional prohibition of torture while admitting the evidence against Major Leso. The committee is well aware that all of those actions, singularly and in combination, amount to torture. The four additional mitigating assertions in no way dispute his participation in torture; they are a justification for refusing to pursue disciplinary action of any kind. This means that the supposed absolute prohibition against psychologist involvement in torture is vacuous, since there are no consequences for any APA members who torture as US state agents.

This incoherence is further enhanced when we look at what the Committee is turning a blind eye to:

1. the deliberate infliction of sexual violence on prisoners; deliberate emasculation through a variety of torture strategies including sexual assault by female interrogators, forced nudity in front of females, forced wearing of a thong

2. deliberate use of racism to damage and destroy the identity of the inmate. The use of dogs and the sexual violence also were intended to exploit perceived Muslim fears of dogs and religious beliefs about gender relations

3. deliberate dehumanization. al-Qatani, among others, had a leash attached to his neck and was pulled around as if he were a dog.

If you understand what torture is, then you know that torture is above all an assault on human identity. A great deal of good psychological work has been done demonstrating this .  Since identity always has ethnic, gendered, class and other components, torturing will always be sexist and, where race is in play, it is inevitably racist.

In refusing to pursue these charges, the ethics committee not only misses the opportunity to work against racism and sexism but, its support of the torture programs means that it quietly tolerates racism and sexism in psychology. Furthermore, rather than pursuing the good of all, it tacitly endorses the moral inequality, the stigmatizing out-grouping, to use the social-psychological phrase, of non-Americans, of Americans like Chelsea Manning who break ranks with their dominant peer group, of stigmatized Americans, among others.

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