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Torture and Social Scientists

November 22, 2006

Professors normally want people to pay attention to their research findings.

But when anthropologists learned that some of their scholarship may have inspired tactics used in the Abu Ghraib prison -- and may be increasingly central to the interrogation of prisoners being held by U.S. forces in many locations, sometimes without standard protections -- many were taken aback.

As a result, scholars attending the American Anthropological Association's annual meeting last week voted unanimously to condemn "the use of anthropological knowledge as an element of physical and psychological torture." The vote took place at the association's business meeting and the issue was such a draw that the group had a quorum (250 members, in contrast to last year's 35) for the first time in 30 years.

The measure will now go for approval to the association's full membership, and marks an attempt by anthropologists to set clear lines that they do not want scholars to cross. "I think this shows how outraged members of the association are," said Alan H. Goodman, president of the association and a professor of anthropology at Hampshire College. "Anthropological knowledge has been implicated in nefarious forms of torture. It's vital to show that we are opposed."

Many of the anthropologists involved in pushing for this tough stance are also trying to send a message to the American Psychological Association, which while condemning torture has upheld the possibility that its members could ethically help the U.S. government with interrogation strategies. In the Abu Ghraib era, anthropologists say that this is naïve and hurts the reputation of all social scientists.

"We're trying to do something against mealy-mouthed policies that don't hold responsible those scum with Ph.D.'s who stand beside torturers," said Gerald Sider, a professor emeritus of anthropology at the City University of New York Graduate Center and the College of Staten Island.

A magazine article and a book reflect the growing body of information that has anthropologists concerned. The article, by Seymour M. Hersh in The New Yorker, explored how Abu Ghraib came to be. Hersh discussed how neoconservative thinkers who shaped U.S. strategy in Iraq treated as "the Bible" a book called The Arab Mind, by the late Raphael Patai, a cultural anthropologist. Patai wrote his book long before anyone might have envisioned a U.S. invasion of Iraq. But Hersh noted that the sections about Arabs and sexual taboo emphasize points -- such as the humiliation of being naked with others, the humiliation of being sexually degraded by women, etc. -- that were in wide circulation among those at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere in the military.

That report is consistent with a new book that shows how interrogation techniques by U.S. forces, which once focused on physical tactics, are increasingly focused on specific cultural aspects of people that may make them likely to break. "It's clear that they are now focused on the idea of attacking cultural sensitivity" and are using anthropology and other social science research, said Alfred W. McCoy, a historian at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and the author of A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, From the Cold War to the War on Terror.

Previously, he said, when the CIA sought scholars' help for interrogations, it was to learn about sensory deprivation, but now it's all about culture, and behavioral scientists' works are central.

The two anthropologists who sponsored the measure approved at the meeting -- Roberto J. González, a professor at San Jose State University, and Kanhong Lin, a graduate student at American University -- said they read these reports with increasing anger and disgust at how their discipline was being used. "This is a gross misuse of social science knowledge," González said.

Lin noted that anthropologists have a specific obligation to speak out because many early anthropologists did help U.S. government officials or British colonial officials, at the expense of various groups that they were studying. "We've had a closely intertwined relationship with the CIA in the past," he said. (There are some who say that anthropologists should provide no assistance to the U.S. military and national security agencies, and the anthropology association is currently studying that issue. But sponsors of the resolution said that theirs was on the narrow topic of torture and was not intended to apply to all anthropologists who work with the government.)

Perceived Contrast With the Psychologists

Both Lin and González said that they were also motivated by the intense debate about these issues at the American Psychological Association, which they see as looking the other way at the ethical issues involved.

Officials of the psychology group strongly dispute that. In August, the group adopted its latest anti-torture policy, which states that it is inappropriate for psychologists to assist in any way with torture and asserts a responsibility for them to report any torture they witness. The reason anthropologists are upset -- as are many psychologists, for that matter -- is that the APA's board last year adopted a policy stating that psychologists could ethically help national security and military interrogations.

A spokeswoman for the APA said that the policy adopted last year was about interrogations that do not use torture, not any that do, which would be covered by other policies. She said it was unfair to characterize the APA as soft on torture.

The U.S. government denies being engaged in torture, although the distinctions it has made about what constitutes torture, most recently when Vice President Dick Cheney appeared to endorse "waterboarding," have left many skeptical. Most anthropologists involved in the discussions at their annual meeting assume that the government is using torture -- an assumption backed by a number of international human rights groups.

González said that he did not know of any anthropologists currently helping American authorities with interrogation strategies, but he said that he hoped that by going on record, the association would discourage "covert involvement" by any of his colleagues. He also said that the example of the book The Arab Mind showed that this was an issue that anthropologists need to consider regardless of whether they are asked to help the CIA. The author of that book would never have known that his book might someday influence the way a military prison was run. "We all need to think about how what we do may be sensitive," said González.

McCoy, the historian who has studied CIA interrogation strategies, praised the anthropologists for taking the position they did. "I think that, as a society, we have adopted a very cavalier attitude about the torture that is going on," McCoy said. "We need a debate that reaches through all professions about what our roles and responsibilities are. I think it's very appropriate that the anthropologists are doing this."

At their meeting, the anthropologists also adopted a resolution condemning the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq and called for the withdrawal of U.S. forces.

While no anthropologists are known to endorse torture, some are less enthusiastic about the stance the association is taking.

Felix Moos is an anthropologist at the University of Kansas who has urged fellow scholars to work with the federal government, sharing expertise about various regions of the world. Moos, who was not at the recent meeting, stressed that he does not approve of torture and that available evidence suggests that torture isn't effective at yielding good intelligence.

But he also wasn't sure about the effectiveness of the anthropologists' position. "The anthropological community is one that I have felt is somewhat resistant to see the real conditions in which the world unfortunately finds itself," he said. "The United States finds itself up against serious challenges today and we should do our utmost to reasonably approach those many challenges rather than rely on the rhetoric of resolutions that in practical terms simply stir up counterproductive reactions."

 

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