Torture and the United States

Editorial note: If you have not yet read our mission statement above, please do so in order that you can put our blogs in context. 

6 November 2013

The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, who was born on the island of Kos in 460 BC and died in Larissa on the mainland in 377 BC, is generally regarded as the father of modern medicine.

His name is still a household word today because of the Hippocratic Oath attributed to him – albeit without much evidence, it has to be said.

This oath, still respected by doctors today even if no longer universally sworn, has for centuries constituted the corner- stone of medical ethics. It enjoins all members of the medical profession to do nothing to impair human health.

You might think such a precept superfluous. After all, doctors are in business to cure and enhance the health of human beings. In what way could they possibly be involved in damaging it?

A natural reaction.

Unfortunately, history leaves us in no doubt as to the permanent value of the Hippocratic Oath.

Take two recent examples.

Adopting the view that some lives were of no importance, Nazi doctors under the Third Reich in Germany conducted hideous experiments on sick people – frequently Jews – who were regarded by the regime as superfluous to requirements.

The Reich’s allies in East Asia, the brutal militarist regime that called the shots in Japan during the Second World War, is also reported to have used doctors to carry out combat-related medical experiments on defenceless prisoners of war.

Well, that’s all history now, you may think.  We don’t need to bother about it these days. After all, we are living in the humane, progressive, liberal  21st century.

Forget it.

According to a report in the London Guardian on 4 November 2013, a study just released in the United States  has concluded that doctors, nurses and psychologists working for the US military “violated the ethical codes of their profession under instruction from the Defense Department and the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency] to become involved in the torture and degrading treatment of suspected terrorists”.

The two-year investigation was carried out by an independent Taskforce on Preserving Medical Professionalism in National Security Detention Centres with support from the Institute on Medicine as a Profession and the Open Society Foundation. The 19-strong taskforce included military, health, ethics and legal experts.

Its report, “Ethics abandoned: Medical Professionalism and Detainee Abuse in the War on Terror”, concludes that after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York on 11 September 2001 health professionals working with US military and intelligence services “designed and participated in cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment and torture of detainees”.

According to the study, as reported in the Guardian, the Department of Defense and the CIA required their healthcare staff to put aside any scruples in the interests of intelligence-gathering.  They were accordingly involved in security practices amounting to torture or abuse that caused severe harm to detainees, including waterboarding, sleep deprivation and the force-feeding of prisoners on hunger strike.

Medical professionals are said to have been instructed that the fundamental principle of their ethical code – “do no harm” – did not apply. As a result, inter alia, CIA medical personnel attended waterboarding sessions.

Leonard Rubenstein, a co-author of the report, told the BBC that another example of unacceptable behaviour was medical “participation in interrogations where health professionals search for vulnerabilities which interrogators can exploit”.

The US security services are said to be claiming that they have cleaned up their act in recent years, but the report insists that some practices, such as the force-feeding of detainees, continue (for example, at the US gulag at Guantánamo Bay).

According to the Guardian report, the taskforce maintains that the security-imposed “changed roles for health professionals” as well as “anaemic ethical standards” remain in place to this day.

Dr Gerald Thomson, professor emeritus of medicine at New York’s Columbia University and a member of the taskforce, is quoted as saying: “The American public has a right to know that the covenant with its physicians to follow professional ethical expectations is firm regardless of where they serve”.

And not just the American public! We are talking here about an abomination with global reach. We all have a right to that knowledge.


Both the Pentagon and the CIA have rejected the report.

Well, they would, wouldn’t they? To cite English courtesan Mandy Rice-Davies.

The CIA says the report “contains serious inaccuracies and erroneous conclusions”.

Mandy Rice-Davies to that, too.

The Pentagon points out that none of its critics had access to detainees, their medical records or procedures at Guantánamo Bay.

Well, they wouldn’t, would they? The gulag is not a holiday camp known for its open access policy – particularly when it is more than likely that visitors might turn up something unsavoury under the carpet.

We don’t think that anyone will take the US military’s protestations of innocence too seriously – not after Abu Ghraib, Camp Bagram and Guantánamo Bay. And then there was the notorious US “renditions” progamme whereby suspects – yes, suspects, not convicted criminals – were kidnapped and then “rendered” (forcibly transferred) to countries outside the rule of law where they could be tortured with impunity.

Oh yes, the United States of America, land of Lincoln and liberty!

Don’t make us laugh.

You are in there, up to your eyes in it, alongside the torturers of the Third Reich and the Land of the Rising Sun.


 You might perhaps care to view some of our earlier posts.  For instance:

1. Why? or How? That is the question (3 Jan 2012)

2. Partitocracy v. Democracy (20 July 2012)

3. The shoddiest possible goods at the highest possible prices (2 Feb 2012)

4. Capitalism in practice  (4 July 2012) 

5.Ladder  (21 June 2012)

 6. A tale of two cities (1)  (6 June 2012)

 7. A tale of two cities (2)  (7 June 2012)

 8. Where’s the beef? Ontology and tinned meat (31 Jan 2012)

Every so often we shall change this sample of previously published posts.








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