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Psychology and Torture

2010 November 17

Psychology and Torture

In the course of producing our documentary, REFUGE: Caring for Survivors of Torture, many people we have interviewed have told us that survivors they work with report that doctors and other healthcare professionals have been present – sometimes actively involved – in their torture. We’ve been told that this may be true in as many as half of all torture cases.
…..Adrianne Aron, PhD, is a psychologist, author, and translator who has worked for many years with survivors of torture. I first encountered her work as the co-editor (with Shawn Corne) of Ignacio Martín-Baró’s Writings for a Liberation Psychology – the only readily available source for his work in English. She also wrote the book’s introduction and translated many of the articles. She has also recently published the long-awaited first English translation of Mario Benedetti’s play Pedro and the Captain (more on this in a coming post.)
…..Aron recently chaired a panel on Psychology and Torture during “Berkeley Says No to Torture Week,” in Berkeley, California. Aron authorized us to post her introductory remarks (see below) as a contribution to the ongoing discussion of the roles psychologists (and other healthcare professionals) play in “enhanced interrogation,” “extraordinary rendition,” and other abuses of human rights. 
…..NOTE: Among the other panelists was Argentine torture survivor Patricia Isasa, who was 16 years old when she was kidnapped in 1976, during that country’s military dictatorship. Isasa was held without trial and tortured for two and a half years. After a long legal battle (during which former president Néstor Kirchner ordered her into a witness protection program after another witness disappeared) six of her nine torturers were sentenced to prison. View/listen to Isasa’s recent interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now, or read the more extensive interview with Adele Nieves (in English and Spanish) on VivirLatino.

(If ordering books or DVDs discussed in this blog from Amazon, please consider doing so through our website, which will help to support the work of The Refuge Media Project. Click on the book titles above to be redirected to our site.)

…….“People commonly believe that what devastates the victim is the physical brutality inflicted on the prisoner—the crushing of the body through beatings and electric shocks and tight shackles and so on…
…….“More and more people are coming to know about these things, but what they usually don’t know is that, of all that suffering, the worst harm of all is done not by the physical assaults, but by the assaults on the psyche.
…….“Of all the pain that is inflicted, what wounds the most and lasts the longest, survivors will tell you, is the psychological torture.”
……………………….…………....…………..…………— Adrianne Aron

Adrianne Aron, PhD Introductory Remarks Panel on “Psychology and Torture”
Berkeley Says No To Torture Week, 10/15/2010

(Illustrations here and below are from School of the Americas Watch, in recognition of it’s ongoing work to shut down the “School of Assassins.” Both Aron and Isasa are active supporters of this organization and its work.)

Why have we organized a panel about psychology and torture?  We’re here because we’re aware that psychologists have been key players in the design and practice of torture in the US government’s prisons and black sites across the world.  Just this morning, a headline on “Democracy Now” reported that Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association, “whose theories helped form the basis of the CIA torture program, has been awarded a $31 million no-bid military contract… Seligman gave a 2002 address at the Navy’s SERE school in San Diego on his theory of ‘learned helplessness.’  In the 1960s, Seligman experimented on dogs and found that by shocking a dog repeatedly and randomly, he could brutalize it emotionally into a state of complete passivity. His research was later used for the Bush administration’s torture methods known as ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques.”
…..As we know, “enhanced interrogation” is a euphemism for torture, just as “rendition” is a word they use so they don’t have to say they are disappearing people, and “extraordinary rendition” is their euphemism for assassination.  Language control and corruption is a favorite weapon in the arsenal of repression.  As is torture.
…..We’re here because we’re outraged by the information that comes out little by little like the information about Seligman disclosed this morning.
…..We’re here also, as Pierre Labossiere will discuss, because psychologists have also been targeted by the torture apparatus as victims, for standing up as professionals against the inhuman practice of torture, and as healers, helping those who have been subjected to it.
…..Here in the United States psychologists have also stood up, as Ruth Fallenbaum will discuss, to demand that the American Psychological Association follow the lead of the other APA, the American Psychiatric Association, by forbidding members of the profession to involve themselves in any way in the practice of torture.
…..And we’re here to listen to Patricia Isasa, a torture survivor from Argentina, tell about the therapeutic value of seeking justice by making torturers and their bosses accountable for their crimes against humanity.
…..I myself have worked for many years with people who have been subjected to torture, and want to say a few things about the aims of torture and its psychological effects.
…..People commonly believe that what devastates the victim is the physical brutality inflicted on the prisoner—the crushing of the body through beatings and electric shocks and tight shackles and so on.  These physical assaults do inflict great suffering, and they’ve been carried out all over–in Baghram, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and in unknown numbers of black sites– not randomly or haphazardly, but systematically, following specifications laid out in training manuals prepared by the US government.  There’s the drowning that they call Waterboarding; the muscular exhaustion and circulatory problems that come from forced standing or other stress positions; the electric shocks to the eyelids or the nipples or the genitals; the beatings with sticks and the rapes—the many things that lawyers like John Yoo and Jay Bybee claim should not be considered torture unless they result in “death, organ failure, or permanent damage.”
…..More and more people are coming to know about these things, but what they usually don’t know is that, of all that suffering, the worst harm of all is done not by the physical assaults, but by the assaults on the psyche.
……Of all the pain that is inflicted, what wounds the most and lasts the longest, survivors will tell you, is the psychological torture.
…..Following the instructions of the manuals, the torturers humiliate and degrade you; they insist you are guilty of crimes; they impress upon you that you are a worthless, powerless piece of nothing that ought to be shot, but you’re not worth the cost of a bullet.
…..While you’re there before them, filthy, bloody, snotty, and swollen, abject and broken down, they see you and tell you that you’re something less than a human being.  You’re a scumbag, an insect, vermin, a raghead.  They have dehumanized you, and this makes it easier for them to abuse, even kill you, because you’re not really a person, you’re a thing. And you, in spite of yourself, come to believe it.  You have no control anymore over who you are; you do whatever they tell you to do, you are whatever they say you are.  Like Pavlov’s dogs, like Seligman’s dogs, you have learned what your oppressors have required you to learn.  There is no question of who is in charge: they have all the power.  They demand that you cooperate, that you tell the interrogator, for example, what he wants to hear.  When you do that, —because you have no way not to do it, because you have no power to refuse—you may betray your friends, your principles, your values, your religious beliefs. You may utterly give up being a self.  And you wind up completely alienated and scared of everything.
…..And that sort of thing doesn’t quit.  Long after the tortures end, you live in fear, mistrustful of other people, scared of loud noises, terrified of being touched.  Your own shadow, as one survivor put it to me, frightens you.
…..That brings me to a second point often overlooked or misunderstood about torture: its effects on the community.  Torture is but one weapon in the arsenal of repression.  Like disinformation campaigns and engineered fear, its aim is to separate people and break down the human solidarity necessary to mount a resistance to a terrorist state.  When torture is present as a possibility in a country, nobody can feel safe.  It goes along with the suspension of habeas corpus and the shredding of constitutional rights, with silence out of fear of being fingered, and temptations to turn on your fellow citizens.
…..Most of the prisoners in Guantanamo right now got there because people in their communities were offered rewards, as high as $5,000 a head, for turning in suspected terrorists.  They aren’t terrorists, they never were.  But somebody needed the money, and the offer was irresistible.  If they can be disappeared and held and tortured for ten years without charges, what about you?  What about me?
…..When dissent becomes a crime, what is to prevent torture from becoming a routine practice in your local police station?  Or by paid contractors in the private, profit-driven U.S. prisons that already exist?
…..Do we dare to speak out against it? 
…..James Baldwin, many years ago said that silence is suicidal, “for if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.”  Or in Reverend Niemoller’s famous words about Nazi Germany,

They came first for the Communists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for me
and by that time no one was left to speak up.

Speaking up to denounce torture and the other crimes against humanity committed by the terrorist state brings us to the last point I want to stress, that is frequently misunderstood about people who have been tortured.  Almost never, when you ask someone who has been tortured what they want to see done with their torturers, do you hear that they want revenge.
…..I always ask, and what I always hear is, “I want to see them brought to justice.”
…..They want for the world to become a safe place, for the laws and human relations that have been turned upside down and damaged to be set right again and healed.  They want to see the crimes against humanity denounced and the criminals put on trial and punished by due process, by a world that respects the rule of law, where justice, not fear, is the organizing principle for human life.
…..This is what ethical psychologists are striving for against the criminals who have designed the US torture apparatus; and what people in Haiti have been striving for by demanding the justice and accountability they enjoyed before US marines kidnapped their president and forced him into exile; and what Patricia Isasa has succeeded in doing through years and years of effort to denounce her torturers, put them on trial, and see them convicted and imprisoned.  And it’s what each one of us has to continue striving for here in the United States.  Thank you for being here; we need each other.

(If ordering books or DVDs discussed in this blog from Amazon, please consider doing so through our website, which will help to support the work of The Refuge Media Project. Click on the book titles above to be redirected to our site.)

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