Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Talking Torture Blues

In an incredible, yet thoroughly well intentioned, display of navel gazing, a dozen organizations and institutions co-sponsored a gathering to discuss torture. That is, they emphasized the disgraceful cooperation, complicity and active participation by their own.

I heard an interrogator and three health professionals describe why we do it, why the nation allows it, what the deep drawbacks are for us, and that role of psychologists from the beginning and continuing. Coming will be a post on the role of psychologists and a second one on why we torture (and how to stop it).

The panel/symposium was Torture and the American Psyche: Blurring the Boundaries Between Healers and Interrogators. I had read considerably on torture, knew that our current Administration does more than support it, and researched the ex-interrogator Eric Fair. Yet, I did not know how integral shrinks have been in this.

Psychologists and other mental-health professionals have worked with clandestine operations and the military to design the most insidiously effective torture methods they could, and trained interrogators in how to apply them. They continue to get paid for this. Alone among the health-related associations, the American Psychological Association has yet to forbid any involvement in torture.

Meeting last weekend at the First Parish in Brookline, the seminar took the form of a two-hour panel before questions and breakouts. The attendants were perhaps 150, mostly mental-health professionals, with some social activists, including a handful from that church. The panel included:

Disclaimer: I have been attending First Parish in Brookline. I know members of the social-action committee there.

I took Fair aside before the program started. I had incorrectly thought he might be a publicity hound. My library and internet research turned up a seemingly endless set of citations for his speaking engagements, as well as several articles he wrote, others who interviewed him, and particularly his Washington Post op-ed, An Iraq Interrogator’s Nightmare, a year ago that turned the subject of torture to a full boil.

It did not take long to see that this young Presbyterian divinity school grad student (the Princeton Theological Seminary) was as sincere as humans can be. He deeply regrets having abused prisoners as an interrogator in Iraq. In what must be called atonement, he is doing more than heading for a life of ministry. About once a month when pressed by requests, he speaks clearly and firmly about what he did, how he continues to be haunted by it, and what we must do as a nation to stop this most anti-liberty, anti-American travesty.

As Fair told me, he had the easiest out of the interrogators. He was a contractor and no longer a soldier. He could quit and leave, which he did. The only other interrogator who has publicly discussed and declaimed his role, retireed-Spc. Tony Lagouranis, tells similar tales of torture, leading to eventual shame and then refusal to continue torture and interrogation. Lagouranis' co-authorship of a book on the subject has been yet another handle for those who criticize him 1) for telling his story and 2) for his deeds he described.

On the panel, the health professionals described the conditions, present and past, that have brought us to a place where we carry out and others condone or ignore torture. They are angry and ashamed of the APA for its cowardly and tepid dealings with it. They too see the dreadful disconnect in our urging Iraq, Afghanistan and other nations to institute democracy and freedom, as we torture and simultaneously strip our citizens of Bill of Rights protections. Who are we to proselytize what we do not live?

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