Rejecting the Obama-Cheney Alliance Against Torture Prosecutions

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A decade ago, amid early reports of detainee abuse at CIA black sites and Guantanamo Bay, defenders of U.S. detention and interrogation operations promoted a flawed distinction between torture and “torture-lite.” They argued that, to our nation’s credit, rather than resorting to brutal and violent maiming and mutilation, we employed less cruel techniques—techniques like sleep deprivation, extended isolation, stress positions, sensory bombardment, forced nudity, freezing temperatures, sexual and cultural humiliation, confinement in coffin-like boxes, and threats of harm to family members. This favorable assessment, however, does not withstand scientific scrutiny; these hands-off psychological methods are at least as devastating and debilitating in their long-term and often permanent effects. Yet the notion of “torture-lite” helped to encourage the public to accept the inhuman treatment of detainees.

Now, following last month’s release of the Senate report on the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation program,” we are drawn to another deceptive distinction: the difference between “torture tolerance” on the one hand and what might be called “torture tolerance-lite” on the other. To nobody’s surprise, torture tolerance found its go-to spokesperson years ago in Dick Cheney. The former vice-president predictably returned to center stage to defend the CIA’s methods. His strident message has ranged from “I would do it again in a minute” to “It absolutely did work” to “I have no problem as long as we achieve our objective.” Indeed, Cheney and other Bush Administration officials who instituted the program apparently believe our torturers deserve to be decorated, not indicted.

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Cast Into the Depths: Perilous Waters for the APA

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In his book Life Lines, the late minister and theologian Forrest Church wrote, “When cast into the depths, to survive we must first let go of things that will not save us. Then we must reach out for things that can.”

These are words – and actions – that the leaders and membership of the American Psychological Association should take to heart as a new year begins, before the profession drowns in the torture scandal that has been building for well over a decade. Rescuing the APA will not be easy, but here are a few specific suggestions for where and how to begin.

First, the APA must let go of its stubborn denials of any connection to the Bush Administration’s program of torture and abuse. The brutal treatment of detainees was not merely the isolated and abhorrent inspiration of two so-called rogue psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen; indeed, from the start the Office of Legal Counsel “torture memos” were drafted with key roles for psychologists specifically in mind.

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