When Therapy Becomes Torture

James Risen of the New York Times is known for his fearless honesty, and his courage to have decided to use his freedom not to name sources in the midst of important investigative reporting. His most recent piece comes now in the form of an article entitled
"Psychologists Shielded U.S. Torture Program, Report Finds", dated July 10, 2015. What becomes increasingly clear is that health professionals within the CIA questioned the extreme methods used in the post 9/11 torture policies, while top psychologists, some quite prominent, worked very hard so as to hide any aspects of the programs that might expose them as contrary to the codes of behavior to the very psychologists who became actively involved.

There is a 542-page report for those of us both interested enough and adept at language which can feel at times technical, and overwhelming. I, for one, have been compelled by this subject for years now, and I can at the same time see how the language and the lists of facts and the story lines can be confusing.

There are many issues here, including a question about why we should care. For many this is old news. And for many others we see the "other," the potential terrorist as in ways sub-human, deserving of punishment or any means of getting valuable information. Except that we fail our stated purpose when we don't look at not only what tormenting others does to the tormentor, but also at just how ineffective and damaging our torture policies have been. They no doubt added to the image of America in much of the world as itself terrorizing of others, as being a source of humiliation and degradation, which only infuriated and threatened the lives of so many, threatening also a modicum of trust that many people had had before torture became normalized

There is perhaps another underlying question here. Mental health professionals are not equipped to be the sanity police of a society, and certainly many of us know too well that those who go into the clinical fields in mental health have their (our) own wounds to heal as well. At the same time, our job includes evaluating the factors in a person's life, the context in which he/she is coping, and the implications of both actions and inactions. For social workers this part of the field is perhaps clearer, but it would seem obvious that part of our task is to be cautious and wakeful in addressing social conditions that can be abusive and in ways destructive.

Torture harms the person who tortures, and it pushes that person to hide under any figurative tree, even if that means denial of what happened, or being doomed instead to years of trauma, lived out often in stages of breakdown and silence. It engenders increasing sadism and dehumanization. To the victims, there is of course the debasing and the horrific effects of helplessness (a term coined by one of the prominent American Psychological Association's past presidents, and used as a slogan in the torture program as well.)

I do worry that this discussion too easily deteriorates in the public sector to disinterest or rationalization of our having needed to do whatever was done, regardless of evidence as to the ineffectiveness of extreme torture. I worry that too many of us don't take the time to see that if psychologists can be manipulated to become so detached from ethical questioning, from empathy, they can become a danger to those they treat, and a source of betrayal to the rest of us who have need of help not only with individual issues, but with the individual right and capacity to question our social health and the health of our society's functioning. As such mental health practitioners conceivably not only do therapy, but as part of that, they/we model the integrity of empathy and of questioning the assumptions that can at times be cruel and less than sane, big time.

By the way, of course not all psychologists were involved in this -- torture that is -- and some have led the questioning and the protest. But too many had no idea. And this is troubling, as it is when we meet people who lived during the Nazi era and who were oblivious. This -- the issue of torture and of psychologists being a part of enhanced interrogations -- was part of a discussion from early on in this effort, but obviously many were not in the know. Many didn't follow the conversation. And I wonder if what we are seeing is also a part of a tendency to be self-involved, to make our own practices work, to cope with increasingly bureaucratic regulations that hide from us the implications not only of our actions but of social policy that includes cutting spending in education, social welfare, and also very adverse conditions in our ghettoes, in our prisons.

This is no easy matter, whether mental health professions should have within them a component of questioning the sanity of the rules and standards around us. Again, this would not be a form of sanity policing, but more a kind of self-questioning and talking out loud about policies and norms that lead to dehumanization. After all, in addition to helping people investigate their adaptations, we conceivably would be helping them become more empowered to look at some of the psychological and social dangers of adapting to the present rules no matter what the cost.

It is a stretch for many to put ourselves in the shoes of those tortured for what we assumed were reasons of their being at least potential threats. And that stretch seems something we can work at, with the help of the psychologists outside the inner political marriage to the Bush Administration. I say also, let's give that attention to those people who tortured who are now tortured in silence by the nightmares too haunting to drown out.