For those who think that the debate surrounding torture ended with the hoopla around the film Zero Dark Thirty, think again. A recent report by the Task Force on Preserving Medical Professionalism in National Security Detention Centers (Task Force) lambasted doctors for their participation in torture at Guantanamo Bay. The doctors advised CIA and military interrogators on how to take advantage of prisoners’ fears and insecurities, and how to ultimately destroy their will to resist. The CIA’s Office of Medical Services oversaw and approved waterboarding, among other forms of torture. As Dr. Stephen Xenakis points out in a recent interview,
they were specifically giving the interrogators information on the health condition of the subjects, on vulnerabilities, on ideas about what their psychology was, so that they could be exploited . . . they were going to be exploited to exercise stress and coercion, with the idea that they were going to get better information.
What happened to that whole Hippocratic oath thing? Well, if wasn’t already obvious, Xenakis brings it home, saying “that’s totally outside the domain of what we do as doctors.” Right. So, you can now add doctors to the list of official servants of U.S. government abuse and torture of imprisoned individuals.
The complicity of the medical profession has been highlighted before, specifically with the force-feeding of Guantananmo prisoners. With that situation, as with the general participation of doctors in torture at Guantanamo, there were voices of the medical profession who spoke out against this practice, with the British Medical Association, American Medical Association, and many other medical professional associations abhorring the practice as completely counter to basic medical ethics.
Why these tactics were necessary in the first place, and why some of them continue, is unclear. There is of course the infamous cinematic depiction in Zero Dark Thirty. To many, the movie made it appear as if torture somehow led to the location and murder of Osama bin Laden. As Professor Christopher Pyle points out in an incisive interview, the American people are “taught by this film that, in some way that's not exactly clear, torture provided a key piece of information.”
It has been well documented that torture did not in fact lead to the discovery of bin Laden’s location, as multiple government officials explicitly stated, including Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein. Well, it turns out that besides enlisting doctors in their nefarious schemes, the military and CIA also rallied Hollywood to their cause by giving gobs of classified information to assist in making the film. It might be some solace to think that when co-opting Hollywood, as compared to doctors, at least they were helping them do what they normally do: make things up.
Unfortunately, perhaps the most comprehensive study of the details of these practices and their efficacy, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) report, has yet to be released. This is despite demands from transparency groups, human rights organizations, as well as military and Senate leaders.
Regardless of whether or not one decides, contrary to all available evidence, that torture did lead to the discovery of bin Laden’s location, this ignores the basic point. As Shahid Buttar has argued, among many others, torture violates basic principles of morality and legality. This includes the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, as well as international law in the form of the Convention Against Torture. Just as Dr. Xenakis said that this is “totally outside the domain of what we do as doctors,” torture is supposed to be totally outside of what we do as a country.
Yet, besides Guantanamo, there are ample indications that we consistently do this as a country, at home and abroad. See the ongoing reports regarding torture in Afghanistan by U.S. Special Forces in conjunction with Afghan security forces. At home, we have the recent hunger strike in California prisons in reaction to extensive use of solitary confinement, often for many years. These conditions are considered by people from John McCain to UN Special Rapporteur Juan Mendez, as close to, if not outright, torture. Just a few weeks ago, Mendez demanded access to California’s prisons to evaluate the conditions of prisoners in solitary confinement. Good luck with that.
Unfortunately, the fallout from years of torturing people continues, and new details continue to be revealed. The debate that exploded because of the release of Zero Dark Thirty was woefully inadequate, and certainly shouldn’t be over. One can only imagine what will be added to the debate if the SSCI report is ever revealed. Considering what the evidence has shown us so far, it wouldn’t surprise me if we were waiting a long time. Although who knows, you might see it coming soon, in theaters near you.