Nick Werle's homepage

Torture, Doctors, $

Category : Uncategorized · by Apr 20th, 2009

Today, the BDH published my last column of the semester, which argued that the Political Theory Project acted irresponsibly when it paid John Yoo to speak at Brown in February. Though the column is a little late on the Brown side of things, the case(s) against Yoo and company have only gotten stronger with further Obama-powered memo releases.

Speaking of torture, I’ve was working on an essay (On Defining Torture) in my writing seminar earlier this semester about the unintended consequences of the use of medical language to legally define torture. Thought I thought I had some “good” material to work with back in early February, last week’s leaked, top secret ICRC report was unbelievable:

Medical personnel were deeply involved in the abusive interrogation of terrorist suspects held overseas by the Central Intelligence Agency, including torture, and their participation was a “gross breach of medical ethics,” a long-secret report by the International Committee of the Red Cross concluded.

Based on statements by 14 prisoners who belonged to Al Qaeda and were moved to Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, in late 2006, Red Cross investigators concluded that medical professionals working for the C.I.A. monitored prisoners undergoing waterboarding, apparently to make sure they did not drown. Medical workers were also present when guards confined prisoners in small boxes, shackled their arms to the ceiling, kept them in frigid cells and slammed them repeatedly into walls, the report said.

Facilitating such practices, which the Red Cross described as torture, was a violation of medical ethics even if the medical workers’ intentions had been to prevent death or permanent injury, the report said. But it found that the medical professionals’ role was primarily to support the interrogators, not to protect the prisoners, and that the professionals had “condoned and participated in ill treatment.

From my essay,

The situation is similar with regard to torture and interrogations; sections 2.067 and 2.068 of the AMA ethics code unequivocally prohibit physicians from participating in either [torture or executions]. The rules not only prevent doctors from providing material assistance to interrogators but also prohibit supplying or withholding their professional knowledge in the service of intelligence agents. Physicians may not even “monitor interrogations with the intention of intervening in the process, because this constitutes direct participation in interrogation.” These standards clearly oppose the kind of physician involvement that would be necessary were torture’s legal definition to be defined by medical standards of harm. Even ex post facto medical evaluations of previous interrogations would be problematic, since doctors’ participation would enable intelligence personnel to get by with harmful actions that don’t meet the bar for classification as torture. This is analogous to the existing ban on doctors pronouncing inmates dead on the execution table. Consequently, medical participation at any stage in the interrogation process would force doctors to either violate their professional codes of conduct or require groups such as the AMA to unreasonably weaken their ethical expectations….

Deploying medical knowledge onto this situation reasserts some level of authority, organization, control, and professionalism that counteract the frightening sense of the “War on Terror” as an abusive free-for-all. But, the very characteristics of stability and respect that make medicine an attractive basis for defining legal categories extend to conceal the acts themselves. Just as pancuronium bromide conceals the corporeal violence of execution, cloaking torture in the discourse of medicine bestows human rights abuses with a veneer of respectability. For people seduced by the allure of information extracted by waterboarding an “al Qaeda operative,” knowledge of medical supervision might be sufficient to excuse this otherwise objectionable practice.  One can already imagine Limbaugh’s quip: “Liberals should stop complaining, these terrorists’ interrogations are conducted under the supervision of a doctor. That’s more than many Americans without health insurance can say about their own lives.”


Leave a Reply