Winston Churchill once stated “a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” Our profession is certainly facing that experience now, with regard to the allegations rendered by the Hoffman Report. The past several weeks have certainly brought about its share of challenges and concerns related to this document amid apologies and proposed actions. While the document is rift with innuendos and suppositions, the emotionality of its allegations has, for many, appears to have suspended our professional obligation to review data in a thoughtful and scientific manner.
In all the hyperbole that has surrounded the leakage of the report to the press, the fact that not a single military psychologist has been found to have mistreated detainees has been lost. The report acknowledges that, deep within its pages, but counters the failure to find that “smoking gun” is secondary only to a lack of access to the pertinent information. Lost in the emotional response is the fact that the PENS Report affirms that the Ethical Code applies to operational psychologists. Absent in the discussions is that PENS report reaffirms the prohibition for psychologists to “engage in, direct, support, facilitate or offer training in torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading behavior,” and requires them to report such behavior it is witnessed.
I am also deeply troubled that, in the rush to judgment, individuals have been fired, their reputations besmirched and their careers threatened without providing them with the tiniest voice in the process. Several public apologies have been rendered, as if the allegations listed within this report are verifiable fact, as opposed to the opinion of a prosecutor who acknowledges very little understanding of psychologists, our professional organization and, I would strongly argue, the military.
While the reverberations of this report will continue to echo in the coming years, there are two items of immediate concern that will be addressed through the APA Council of Representatives during the upcoming Convention in Toronto. The following two items are apparently on the agenda for action:
- A resolution in favor of providing support and assistance to military and national security psychologists striving to abide by the APA Ethics code and APA policy.
- The implementation of the 2008 membership vote to remove psychologists from all settings that operate outside of international law.
The second action presents another set of problems. In addition to the conundrum of identifying exactly what constitutes “international law,” this proposal would establish an inherent conflict between psychologists who, by their oath as military officers or their code of conduct as civilian, government employees must uphold U.S. law. While this conflict is absent when the U.S. is a signatory to the document, in situations where it is not and there is a conflict between U.S. and international law, military and government psychologists must follow U.S. law.
As is the case for most complex issues, there is the potential for numerous second and third order effects when making decisions in a vacuum. It is my growing belief that there is a segment of the APA membership that would like nothing more than to exclude military and operational psychologists from the organization and, ultimately, the profession itself. This action seems driven by an unshakable belief that the organization would be somehow purified as a result. This would be a disservice of significant proportions, to our profession and to our Nation. If an individual is found to have violated the Ethics Code, then that individual should be held accountable. If a clinician was found to have taken inappropriate liberties with a patient, that individual is held responsible – we don’t, as a profession, prevent clinicians from seeing patients.
I wish that the world was a simpler and kinder place, one where gunman don’t walk into an elementary school and kill innocent children; one where terrorists don’t burn prisoners alive while simultaneously broadcasting the event; one where planes aren’t intentionally flown into buildings as a political statement, but it is not. Military and operational psychologists work on a daily basis to assist in preventing such acts, not, as Mr. Hoffman implies, by using their professional skills to torture detainees – torture is illegal, unethical, unsafe and, frankly, ineffective in obtaining credible information. Military and operational psychologists, recognizing the incredible complexity of their charge, routinely discuss our ethical dilemmas, seeking guidance from peers in resolving these matters, in exactly the same manner that our colleagues in other professions.
This is a period of crisis for our organization and profession. The end result may be one of division and rancor, or a time of reflection and growth. The more positive outcome requires that we all have a voice and that these conversations are truly heard. I realize that it will take courage to take this stance, as there are some that will interpret this as supporting torture; however, it is critical to remind ourselves that thoughtful, balanced and informed discussions will be the light for this journey.
Sally C. Harvey, Ph.D.