MHC Joins Outcry over Psychologists' Torture Role

The story below ran in the Daily Hampshire Gazette on May 23, 2007.

By Kristin Palpini, Staff Writer

SOUTH HADLEY - Mount Holyoke College psychology professors are taking a stand against the use of torture in the interrogation of suspected terrorists.

This month, the college joined a small but growing number of academic psychology departments, including Smith College, in formally criticizing the American Psychological Association's position on allowing its 148,000 members to participate in torture.

The APA, the largest association of psychologists in the world, maintains a long list of acts of torture that members are not to participate in. However, the organization's code of ethics includes a section that permits psychologists to participate in such acts if ordered to do so by their employer or the government.

"This isn't just some esoteric issue among a small number of professionals. Torture concerns all of us as citizens," said Gail A. Hornstein, a Mount Holyoke psychology professor.

"We have to take a moral stand about what we think the role of professionals should be in this kind of context," she said. "You don't have to be a member of the APA to have a viewpoint about what psychologists should be doing in interrogations."

The APA's stance on torture drew notice following the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal and the ongoing debate over the condition of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, a holding complex for suspected terrorists.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Justice Department reported that CIA and military interrogators employed methods on suspected terrorists that were in some cases "borderline torture" and possibly illegal. The report states that CIA and Pentagon interrogators have used snarling dogs, short shackles, mocking of the Quran and other abuses of detainees overseas that appear to have overstepped what American courts would allow.

The military is the largest employer of American psychologists, according to the APA. Military psychologists serve in a variety of roles including providing mental health services to soldiers and personnel testing.

However, some people, including Mount Holyoke and Smith college psychology professors, fear some military psychologists are assisting in the torture of detainees by helping to break a prisoner's mental state. There is concern that psychologists are also tinkering with detainees' minds to program them to be more receptive to torture or otherwise putting them in the right mind-set to succumb to torture.

"There are a lot of psychologists in the military for completely legitimate reasons," said department chairwoman Patricia Ramsey, "but it crosses the line when you have this practice in any form of torture."

Earlier this month, the Mount Holyoke College psychology department's 13 professors unanimously voted to pass a resolution urging the APA to bar all its members from participating in any form of torture and to rescind an ethics code section that allows them to do so under direct orders.

Other institutions of higher education that have passed resolutions decrying the APA's stance on torture include Earlham College (the first college to do so); Guilford College, California State University at Long Beach, the University of Rhode Island, and York College of the City University of New York.

The APA's current stance on torture violates the principles of psychology, said Ramsey. Psychologists are supposed to do no harm, she said.

"You can help people who have been victims of torture," said Ramsey, "but in no way are you supposed to put them back in shape for more torture."

Mount Holyoke's resolution was further bolstered by an alumnae-led petition to decry the use of torture against detainees. The petition received just under 500 signatures from Mount Holyoke College and the larger community.

"It was a pretty straightforward petition," said Mahajoy Laufer, the petition's author and Mount Holyoke graduate. "Basically it says torture is wrong and it shouldn't be happening in places like Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib."

Kristin Palpini can be reached at