Justice Matters: Holding People Who Torture to Account

As a new report on the role of the American Psychological Association (APA) in justifying and defending the U.S. government's torture program provides yet more evidence of the crimes committed in the name of national security, justice remains elusive.

Not only did individual psychologists break the law, but the APA undermined ethical standards that would have prohibited their participation in torture. As people whose profession holds them to high ethical standards and whose goal is presumably to heal -- not harm -- people, its seems inconceivable that they would actively and enthusiastically support torture.

At the highest levels of government, belated acknowledgment of torture and other violations of international law are accompanied by exhortations to recognize the special circumstances in which these crimes took place, to accept them as mistakes, and to look forward, not backward. Instead of pursuing criminal charges against those who committed torture, President Obama has defended them as patriots.

But the real message is that there is a double standard. When the United States is threatened or attacked, there are no holds barred, which the people of Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia know all too well. And when the victims from those countries are painted by the U.S. government as somehow different than the victims of the 9/11 attacks that triggered these crimes, justice is optional.

There is nothing new about this double standard. Ask the Japanese Americans who were stripped of their property and interned in camps during World War II. Or ask the families of African-American men and boys who have been killed by the police in such disproportionate numbers that the murders rarely make headlines -- except when caught on video.

In short, there is a problem with justice in the United States. Government resources are used to protect the privileged, and crimes are largely excused when they are committed by police, private security contractors, members of the U.S. military or intelligence agents.

Justice works when those charged with upholding the law are unmoved by the power of those standing before them -- whether those individuals are victims, witnesses, or perpetrators. Justice fails when the powerful are protected and the less privileged are presumed to have some inherent flaw that makes them more likely to commit crimes. The latter is the rule in the United States.

The desire for power and privilege and to have purpose in the wake of the 9/11 attacks can be a powerful siren song. The APA and some of its members followed the song, and now the credibility of an entire profession has been shattered. It can only be restored if there is a true reckoning that not only looks at the individuals who have committed or abetted the crime of torture -- but also addresses how the seduction of power, money, and influence has perhaps irreparably destroyed a major professional association and tainted an entire profession.

Trying to ascertain the extent of the government's violations of the absolute prohibition against torture and other crimes is far from over. It may take years, but the truth will eventually come out. The question for other medical associations and their leaders is whether they are willing to call for transparency and accountability now rather than hope that the facts remain buried for years.

When the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released the executive summary of its more than 6,000-page report on the CIA and its unlawful torture practices, the name of every medical professional was redacted. These are the names of people who violated the most basic principle of the practice of medicine -- to do no harm. Like the psychologists, instead of being held to account, they have been protected.

The U.S. Department of Justice should launch an investigation into the role not just of psychologists and the APA, but also of medical professionals who engaged in torture. The APA should cooperate fully with the investigation and start to rebuild by ensuring that the members of the leadership who allowed for this travesty are removed from power and held to account. The broader medical establishment should also demonstrate its commitment to the highest ethical standards by adding its voice to the call for accountability -- justice matters.