In July 2015, the American Psychological Association (APA) released an independent investigation documenting how its leaders had worked secretly with the George W. Bush administration to craft what critics called “deceptively permissive ethics policies,” which allowed psychologists to help the U.S. government conduct abusive interrogations, including torture, of suspected terrorists.
Shortly after the investigation came out, the psychologists’ governing body voted 157-1 for a new policy that prohibits members from participating in any way with national security interrogations, due to the risk that torture may be used.
Scott Churchill '72 helped lead the campaign to pass the APA’s new anti-torture policy. A professor of psychology and human science at the University of Dallas, Churchill talked with Bucknell Magazine about the controversy.
By Matt Zencey
Q: How did you come to be so involved in the issue?
A: I've had a longtime commitment to social justice that started at home and continued at Bucknell (with the student strike against bombing Cambodia in 1970). ... In the summer of 2013 an activist reached out to [APA's governing] council, and I responded. It was kind of a grassroots development. I spent two years learning all the unbelievable details.
Q: Was it a big surprise that the policy passed overwhelmingly?
A: Yes. The night before there was an email from the higher-ups telling me there was going to be serious opposition. I was up until 3 a.m. thinking about strategy. I ended up with arrhythmias and 90 minutes of sleep.
It was decided by a roll-call vote, which means everyone has to speak their voice. When we heard the first 25 “yesses,” I looked over at Steve Reisner, who had been a collaborator last year, and his jaw was dropping. We both had tears in our eyes and started crying, along with members of the board of directors.
Q: Early during the controversy over the Bush administration’s use of torture, the APA voted for strong anti-torture policies, but you’ve noted those policies were fatally compromised by obscure technical language buried deep in the documents. Is there a lesson for the wider society in how the APA handled all of this?
A: The main lesson I learned is to read the fine print. Don’t just listen to what politicians say. Find out what they’re actually passing. Educate yourself. But the vast majority of the American public isn’t going to do that. [Another lesson is] speak up when you see something that’s not right. Too many people just turn a blind eye.
Q: The question of using torture has come up in this year’s election for president. What advice do you have for citizens as they listen to what the candidates are saying about it?
A: Pretty much all the research has shown that coercive techniques do not yield actionable intelligence. The Army Field Manual [on Interrogation] has chapter after chapter outlining rapport-building strategies. The CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” were developed by, essentially, hacks who had degrees in psychology.
Talking about the use of torture to procure intelligence is itself a demonstration of ignorance as well as a lack of character, to put it mildly. It expresses what Nietzsche called “the spirit of revenge.” It’s more about asserting power than it is about obtaining information.
Q: You study bonobos. Are there any lessons we humans should learn from these primates about how we approach questions of using torture?
A: Bonobos make love, not war. Bonobos [resort to] aggression only in situations of dire necessity. They look into each other’s faces, and they respond most of the time with compassion. That’s what I would hope a psychologist or a military operative would do, even when they look into the face of the enemy. But a lot of people don’t want to hear that, because in order to fight a war, you have to dehumanize the enemy. We’ve done the research: Coercion doesn’t work. Rapport building does.