The Psychological Cost of Condoning Torture Is Too High

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Memos authored by Professor John Yoo while serving in the Office of Legal Counsel of the Bush Administration opened the door for soldiers, secret service operatives and psychologists acting in the service of the United States to practice torture. Since the appearance of the memos, the vast majority of psychologists and mental health professionals, after heated debate with their colleagues, have unequivocally condemned the practice of torture, both physical and psychological, by members of their professions. The Ethical Guidelines of the International Association for Group Psychotherapy put it quite succinctly: "There are no exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether induced by a state of war or threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, that may be invoked as a justification for torture, including the invocation of laws, regulations, or orders."

Historically, the United States government was in the forefront at the creation of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and also ratified the United Nations' Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment and Punishment in 1994. But the memos of John Yoo rejected this historically profound precedent of United States law.

There are psychological reasons why the U.S. government has persisted with a de facto policy of torture and why in some cases psychotherapists and mental health professionals have colluded in the practice of torture. Psychological research shows that most people can be induced to torture others, given a group structure where the authority permits and encourages the scapegoating and dehumanization of one group of people by another. The research findings of Stanley Milgram on obedience and authority and the findings of Philip Zimbardo in his Stanford Prison Experiment demonstrate that a majority of people would probably torture under the following conditions: 1) They agree to obey authority and 2) Their peers are complying with orders to abuse. Most people would say they would not torture and yet psychological research says otherwise. Why is it so hard for us to accept our vulnerability and susceptibility to become torturers? The question is more than academic. So far, the Obama administration has shown reluctance to pursue prosecutions of six former members of the Bush Justice Department, including John Yoo, for violations of the Geneva Convention Against Torture, a treaty that is also United States law. Although Obama has rescinded the memos which authorized torture, unless those who issued the memos face consequences for breaking the law, an ominous precedent will be set. It sends the world the following message: Under enough stress and pressure from authority, the representatives of the U.S. government will torture.

When President Obama says we do not torture, is he not buying into the familiar illusion we all have about ourselves-that we are incapable of such behavior? Whatever our self concept, we do not need memos that encourage behavior that human beings are in fact highly susceptible to follow, even against their own conscience. That is why I believe the legal profession must do as the psychological profession has done and repudiate the legal rationalizations for torture. The cost for them and our civilization is high if they do not. Research shows that the legacy for the families of those individuals who condone or participate in torture can be one of mental disturbance and suffering-an example of trans-generational trauma passed from the parents who condoned or practiced the torture to the children who did not.

The men and women who condone and practice torture do not escape without psychological scars and trauma that affect their lives and the lives of their children­-sometimes for generations. The intergenerational transmission of trauma has profound effects on those who commit and condone torture. It corrodes the soul and leaves the perpetrator and his or her family an empty shell, haunting the children sometimes for generations.

I encourage Professor Yoo to consider these consequences and invite him to engage in a dialogue with me and others who empathize with the all too human temptation to torture but pull back from its seductive siren call. We all have a lot to lose if we fail to have this deep conversation.

Bill Roller is the chair of the Committee for Ethics and Professional Standards for the International Association for Group Psychotherapy and Group Processes. Respond to [email protected]

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