Q:How did you come to be so involved in the issue?
A:I’ve had a longtime commitment o 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
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 hown 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 demon-
stration 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.
By Matt Zencey
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.