Psychoanalysis, APA and Torture

By Neil Altman

A prisoner at Guantanamo Bay escorted by two soldiers by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Michael Billings [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
It may surprise some people to know that the Division of Psychoanalysis (Division 39) of the American Psychological Association was a leader, if not the leader, in the struggle during recent years against the collusion of the American Psychological Association (APA) with torture and cruel and inhuman treatment of people at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere. Psychoanalysis, after all, has a reputation for focusing on the individual mind, not on social issues. Many see psychoanalysis as focusing on the personal problems of affluent individuals, the economically privileged, rather than the oppressed and forgotten. The fact is that there is a long history of social concern and social action on the part of psychoanalysts. From the free clinics established by psychoanalytic institutes all over Europe in the 1920’s, to collaboration with Labor Unions and community based outreach programs at various institutes around the world. Psychoanalysts have played and continue to play key roles in the gay rights and feminist movements, while the Frankfurt School’s analysis of the “Authoritarian Personality” was a central element in the intellectual reaction to the totalitarian movements of the twentieth century.

I believe Division 39 took a strong leadership position largely due to the existence of Section IX, the Section that advocates for a Psychoanalysis for Social Responsibility. Section IX provided a focus for organizing the otherwise latent social concerns of members of the Division into strong action in the Council of Representatives, the governing body of the APA in the years following the establishment of the Guantanamo Bay detention center and the revelation of the use of torture and cruel and inhuman treatment toward detainees by United States authorities there and elsewhere around the world. The APA ethics code prohibited APA members from participating in torture or cruel and inhuman treatment, yet the APA took a tolerant stand toward the participation of its members at Guantanamo Bay in particular, the very existence of which constituted cruel and inhuman treatment of detainees, a point on which I will expand further below.

Among psychoanalysts and other mental health professionals, there has often been protest and objection against the use of psychological, psychiatric, and psychoanalytic theory and techniques for repressive political ends. The pathologization of homosexuality is a prime example, but there are many others.   Psychoanalytic case reports have all too often promoted conventional lives and life styles, with happy endings of heterosexual marriage, a well paying job, and 2.2 children. There have, on the other hand, been those who saw in our fields the potential for transformative human liberation. In psychoanalysis, theorists such as Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse saw a liberatory potential in the freeing up of sexuality, of id energy, among civilization’s discontents (i.e., those who were suffering under repressive regimes instituted to preserve social order). Some have seen in the expansion of choice, of human freedom, the potential for liberation from overly harsh superego-based repression. Erich Fromm’s writing exposed how the structure of contemporary, especially capitalist society shaped individual personality, a tradition followed more recently by Philip Cushman in his 1995 book Constructing the Self, Constructing America. The psychological structure of racism and prejudice has been addressed and illuminated by Frantz Fanon, Joel Kovel, Ricardo Ainslie, and Elizabeth Young-Bruehl among many others. Lynn Layton has meanwhile been expanding the notion of the unconscious to include socially normative values held out of awareness, advocating a form of liberation from unreflectively held social norms.

The larger fields of psychiatry and psychology have generated movements against the use of their knowledge and expertise for coercive political ends, to bring into line people who have challenged the status quo. Famously, dissidents in the Soviet Union were psychiatrically hospitalized to silence and punish them. In the United States and Europe during the 1960’s and 1970’s, there were media and film depictions of unconventional people being forced into defiant positions by their families or the larger society, pathologized and then “treated” with electroshock therapy or major tranquilizers with destructive side effects. For example, in the United States, Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, later made into a movie, depicted how psychiatric treatment could serve purposes of social control. The implication during the 60’s social upheavals was that mental health “treatment” could be a means of quieting dissent. In Italy, the 2003 film The Best of Youth followed a group of Italian youth drawn to both Communist opposition to the government, and to freeing people who were warehoused and silenced in psychiatric hospitals. The film thus linked opposition to psychiatric abuses to the Red Brigades political rebellions of the 1960’s and 70’s.

As documented by Division 39’s President Frank Summers in 2008, Clinical Psychology was born in the U.S. military during World War II and served military purposes (i.e. getting impaired soldiers evaluated, treated, and back onto the battle field). Subsequently, the field of psychology has been heavily dependent on government funding. One of APA’s primary functions has been to cultivate links to the government and its missions.

Despite resolutions supporting social justice over the years, it should have come as no surprise that, post-9/11, organized psychology would support a specialization in “national security,” including the use of psychological knowledge to gather information in interrogations at Guantanamo Bay and other detention centers. The APA Ethics Code at the time, in its

Two protesters, photo by Joshua Sherurcij
Two protesters, photo by Joshua Sherurcij

Principle 1.02, was ambiguous on the question of what psychologists were to do when organizational demands conflicted with the Ethics Code, thus leaving a loophole for psychologists to act unethically when required to do so by their employers. Throughout the Cold War years, the CIA had supported a great deal of psychological research hoping to find ways to extract information from people (e.g. the original research into psychedelic drugs was supported by the CIA, with the expectation that under the influence of psychedelics people would talk freely, revealing secrets). In recent years, methods of torture have become largely psychological, aimed at breaking down the personalities of those being interrogated, leaving no tell tale marks of physical injury. Psychologists functioned in settings where people were, and are, being held indefinitely, without being charged with a crime and with no due process. By the U.S. government’s own definition, the situation was cruel and inhuman; the APA took no stand on this point despite its ethical principle stating that psychologists did not participate in torture or cruel and inhuman treatment. It was only after the membership initiated a Referendum on the matter, that APA was forced to establish a policy against psychologists working in detention centers where people are held in violation of international law (e.g. the Geneva Conventions, or the U.S. Constitution) unless the psychologist is working directly for the detainee; even then, the organization has dragged its feet, on implementing the policies established by the Referendum. For example, three years after the resolution was passed, psychologists continued to work at Guantanamo Bay in violation of official policy as established by the Referendum. The Ethics Casebook prepared by the Ethics Committee after the Referendum was passed continued to refer to psychologists for guidance on working in detention centers to policies that had been superseded by the Referendum. Most recently, the APA Ethics Committee has declined to investigate the case of John Leso, an APA member who participated in the torture of Mohammed Al-Qatani at Guantanamo Bay (Summers, 2014 and; )

When I was working toward persuading the APA Council to take a stand against psychologists working in detention centers where human rights were being violated, I frequently met with people who were running for leadership positions within APA. When I presented the argument that APA, as per its own ethics code, should not be condoning psychologists working in detention centers where human rights were violated, they invariably agreed with me. It seemed the argument was a slam-dunk. Yet, without fail, once they were elected, these people took up the “party line” that psychologists were in detention centers to look after the human rights of the detainees. Given that the very existence and structure of the detention centers violated human rights, the argument made no sense to me. I concluded that APA’s guild function (i.e. to look out after the economic well being of psychologists by not biting the governmental hand that was feeding them), was trumping ethical considerations.

Returning to the initial point, Division 39 of the APA, and Section IX members in particular, led the way in these struggles against using psychologists in the torture and cruel and inhuman treatment of people. Following in the tradition of Fanon, Kovel, Ainslie, Reich, Marcuse, Fromm, Layton, and many others, these analysts engaged the tension in psychoanalysis, psychology and psychiatry, between an adaptationalist ethic that supported fitting in with the social status quo, and a radical vision that sought freedom from socially imposed convention and repression.

We psychologists and psychoanalysts, like all people, look out after our economic and political self-interests. Also, like all people (or most), we have an ethical sense, an aversion to deliberately causing unnecessary human suffering. As psychoanalysts, we are equipped to appreciate the complexity and contradictory nature of human motivation, including our own. In future columns, I hope we can together keep an eye on the interplay of forces around the debates in APA over psychologists, torture, and cruel and inhuman treatment, the better to be clear about our choices, where we are inclined to turn a blind eye, and what we might see if we so choose.



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