Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Torturers

The New York Times today has a profile of the two men who appear to have started it all. Sort of psychologists, fell into particular roles while in the military, decided they could make some good money at it as contractors after they got out. Not an uncommon pattern; I know a great many scientists whose careers have followed a similar trajectory.

Except that the product these two were selling turned out to be torture when combined with the predelictions of the Bush administration after 9/11.
“I feel their primary motivation was they thought they had skills and insights that would make the nation safer,” Colonel Kleinman [an acquaintance of the two men] said. “But good persons in extreme circumstances can do horrific things.”
Their psychology training was in areas far removed from interrogation. Otherwise Jessen might have figured out what was wrong with this:
At the SERE graduate school, Dr. Jessen is remembered for an unusual job switch, from supervising psychologist to mock enemy interrogator.

Dr. Jessen became so aggressive in that role that colleagues intervened to rein him in, showing him videotape of his “pretty scary” performance, another official recalled.
He might have known about Philip Zimbardo's prison experiment in the 1970s, in which college students readily took on the identities of prisoners and brutal guards. As a psychologist friend once said to me, "Attitude follows behavior." And Jim Mitchell and Bruce Jessen they were also being positively reinforced by money as contractors to the military.
“It was clear that this is what we’d expect from our enemies,” said Dr. Mays, now a clinical psychologist and lawyer in Spokane. “It was not something I could ever imagine Americans would do.”
Zimbardo's experiment showed that it was something anyone would do.

Two men set out to provide for a comfortable retirement on the basis of what and who they knew, exploiting the reaction to 9/11. But there should have been checks and balances from others. Philip Zimbardo could have told them. My psychologist friend could have told them. There's an institutional problem here as well. Part of it is a culture that is too quick to contract out difficult issues with too little oversight. Part of it was the Bush administration's love of the unitary executive.

We won't fully know how it all fit together and how to prevent it happening in the future until we investigate in a coordinated way. That's why we need some sort of governmental investigation.

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