Psychology Should Be Solely a Helping Profession

Psychologists and Abusive Interrogations: Acting on Conscience

I am a psychologist and writer in Lincoln, Nebraska. All of my adult life, I have worked for human rights organizations. In 1965, when I was 17-years-old, I marched for de-segregation in Kansas City. As a therapist, I have spent my career repairing the psychic damage of traumatized people, whether they be rape or assault victims, family members of murder victims, or refugees and asylum seekers. I have worked with torture victims since the 1980’s and I know that many of them are innocent of any crime whatsoever and all of them suffer irreparable damage to their lives.

In August of 2007 I made the difficult decision to return my 2006 Presidential Citation, awarded to me by then President of the American Psychological Association, Dr. Gerald Koocher. I was deeply appreciative of this honor and proud to be a member of the APA. Over the years I have enjoyed an excellent relationship with this organization. I received my first Presidential Citation in 1998 from Dr. Martin Seligman and have been the keynote speaker at the APA’s national convention. With this action, I feel as if I am betraying a good friend.

For the past few years, I have been troubled by various media and Department of Defense reports that psychologists have designed protocols and trained and supervised interrogators in the use of sophisticated methods for breaking the human spirit and destroying mental functioning. When this August, at the APA’s annual convention, members passed Substitute Motion Three instead of a ban on psychologists’ involvement in military interrogations, I felt I needed to act.

Substitute Motion Three looks fine on the surface, but the devil is in the details, and the devil always dresses in the tuxedo of lofty rhetoric. While it has been argued that this resolution bars psychologists’ participation in the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program, the motion did not place a moratorium on psychologists’ involvement in all national security facilities that operate outside the law. This lack of firmness puts our profession at odds with the Geneva Conventions, Red Cross standards, Department of Defense guidelines, The U. N. Declaration of Human Rights, and the ethical codes of the American Psychiatric Association and the American Medical Association. In ratifying this document, the APA has made a terrible mistake.

With sorrow, I have concluded that the United States government is committing war crimes with the help of individual psychologists and our professional organization. Without psychologists’ presence to lend legitimacy to these interrogations, our government would find its position utterly indefensible. The behavior of psychologists on interrogation teams violates our own Code of Ethics, in which we pledge to respect the humanity of all people. As psychologists, we vow to do no harm.

I learned this lesson from my mother, Dr. Avis, who was a small town doctor in rural Nebraska in the 1950’s. She often quoted Hippocrates remark, “Make a habit of two things, to help, or at least, to do no harm.” She took her Hippocratic vows seriously. Two of them I remember specifically, “Never do anyone harm for someone else’s interest.” And, “Keep the welfare of your patient as your highest priority.” My mother gave free medical care to any one who showed up at our house or her office. Sometimes she was paid in smoked hams and sweet corn. She also taught me this, “Morality isn’t pretty words; morality is action.” I hope I am honoring my mother’s values with my decision.

When any of us are degraded, all of human life is degraded. This is not just about the prisoners; it is about who we are as people. Once we decide certain people are beyond the pale and give them less respect than we would want for ourselves if our situations were reversed, we make we ourselves vulnerable to also being treated as less than human.

I know that the return of my Presidential Citation is of small import, but it is what I can do to disassociate myself from what I consider to be a heinous policy. My belief is that psychology should be solely a helping profession. When we become anything else, we destroy ourselves.

I acted as a matter of conscience and in the hopes that the APA will reconsider its current position. We have long been an organization that respects human rights and promotes tolerance, kindness, and peace. It is my deepest hope that the APA will reclaim its reputation as a beacon of integrity and compassion.

Dr. Mary Pipher is the author of Reviving Ophelia.


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