Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Robert Jay Lifton on APA, Torture, & "Socialization to Evil"

Google Video has a fascinating new posting, a work of an independent Boston documentary film maker Hermine Muskat. From the site description:
Robert Jay Lifton, psychiatrist and social activist, applies psychology and psychoanalysis to an understanding of psychologists' involvement in atrocity-producing situations and the interrogation of detainees at places like Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. In this interview, he answers questions about the American Psychological Association and psychologist interrogators' complicity in torture.

In the video interview, Dr. Lifton discusses the profound failure of the American Psychological Association to deal with the serious ethical issues raised by its collaboration with national security operations, such as the abusive interrogations at U.S. detainee prisons. He describes the issue as one of "socialization to destructive behavior, to evil" that takes place among those who work at such sites.

For military psychologists, the conflict comes down to whether they orient towards service for human needs, the healing of the mind, or whether their priority is distorted by the needs of the command structure, "which can be destructive, and leads to torture."

Lifton describes the failure of APA to understand the issues involved represents a double failure, of professional understanding, and of ethics. Psychologists and psychiatrists must "not be in service of the breakdown of mind." He calls the APA's position that psychologists can mitigate the destructive aspects of interrogation "absurd," and notes that psychologists have been uniquely involved in the construction of abusive interrogations.

(Lifton makes it seem that this is a recent phenomenon, i.e., since the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, "borrowing" torture techniques from the Chinese communists. I think he underplays the decades-long U.S. role in researching, spreading, and conducting psychological torture. I've covered this before, but this issue is a matter I will take up in even more detail at a later time.)

Dr. Lifton's interview occurs in the context of a referendum against psychologist participation directly in or auxiliary to the interrogations of detainees in Bush/Cheney's "war on terror." He supports this referendum's purpose, and I strongly recommend those interested in psychology, torture, the politics of the APA, or the politics of the current referendum (now being voted on via mail ballot) watch this fascinating video.

(A tip of the hat for this story to my colleagues, Ghislaine Boulanger and Dan Aalbers.)

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