Protecting psychologists who harm: The APA’s latest wrong turn

Roy Eidelson writes: Shortly after learning about the American Psychological Association’s (APA) late February announcement of its new Member-Initiated Task Force to Reconcile Policies Related to Psychologists’ Involvement in National Security Settings, I found my thoughts turning to the School of the Americas, Blackwater and perhaps even more surprisingly, the Patagonian toothfish. Those may seem like a strange threesome, but they share one important thing in common. All have undergone a thorough repackaging and renaming in a marketing effort aimed at obscuring – but not altering – some ugly truth.

The School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia, became infamous for training Latin American soldiers who returned home and engaged in repressive campaigns involving rape, torture and murder of political dissidents. To combat its negative image, the school was renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, but the nature of its activities remain largely unchanged. During the Iraq War, Blackwater, a private military company supported by hundreds of millions of dollars in US government contracts, gained international notoriety on many counts, including its use of excessive and often deadly force against Iraqi civilians. The company therefore renamed itself – twice – first as Xe Services and then again as Academi, with essentially the same core businesses. As for the Patagonian toothfish, it’s wrong to blame the fish itself. But in an effort to spur sales, merchants renamed it Chilean sea bass (for similar reasons, the slimehead fish is now known as orange roughy instead).

Sadly, the same repackaging and renaming strategy of illusion and deception characterizes the APA’s latest gambit to both protect and disguise the role of psychologists as purveyors of harm. But to fully understand this new ploy – a so-called “task force” to produce a comprehensive document of all APA ethics policies relevant to psychologists in national security settings – it’s helpful to first review some disturbing history.

There is incontrovertible evidence that in the years following the 9/11 attacks, psychologists served as planners, consultants, researchers and overseers to the abusive and torturous interrogations of prisoners in the US “global war on terror.” Multiple reports of wrongdoing emerged, such as one from the International Committee of the Red Cross describing psychological coercion techniques at Guantanamo Bay as “tantamount to torture.” APA members and others responded with outrage and clamor. It was immediately clear that the world’s largest psychological association needed to engage in a careful and transparent examination of whether professional ethics allow psychologists to serve in aggressive operational roles, such as detention and interrogation activities involving national security detainees. Tragically, however, APA’s leadership decided to take a very different path. They chose to rubberstamp the status quo without any meaningful deliberation whatsoever. [Continue reading…]

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