Sometimes the good guys do win. That’s what happened on August 8 in San Francisco when the Council of Representatives of the American Psychological Association (APA) decided to extend a policy keeping its members out of the US detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
The APA’s decision is important—and not just symbolically. Today we have a president who has promised to bring back torture and “load up” Guantánamo “with some bad dudes.” When healing professionals refuse to work there, they are standing up for human rights and against torture.
It wasn’t always so. In the early days of Guantánamo, military psychologists contributed to detainee interrogations there. It was for Guantánamo that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld approved multiple torture methods, including among others excruciating stress positions, prolonged isolation, sensory deprivation, and enforced nudity. Military psychologists advised on which techniques would take advantage of the weaknesses of individual detainees. And it was two psychologists, one an APA member, who designed the CIA’s whole “enhanced interrogation program.”
Here’s a disclaimer of sorts: Ever since I witnessed the effects of US torture policy firsthand in Central America in the 1980s, I’ve had a deep personal interest in American torture practices. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, I wrote two books focused on the subject, the latest being American Nuremberg: The US Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes.
For a year and a half, I also served on a special ethics commission established by the APA after ugly revelations came out about how that organization’s officials had, in the Bush years, maneuvered to allow its members to collude with the US government in settings where torture was used. In fact, an independent review it commissioned in 2015 concluded that “some of the association’s top officials, including its ethics director, sought to curry favor with Pentagon officials by seeking to keep the association’s ethics policies in line with the Defense Department’s interrogation policies.” Indeed, those leaders colluded “with important DoD officials to have [the] APA issue loose, high-level ethical guidelines that did not constrain [the] DoD in any greater fashion than existing DoD interrogation guidelines.”