The Stain of Torture

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By Burton J. Lee III
Friday, July 1, 2005

Having served as a doctor in the Army Medical Corps early in my career and as presidential physician to George H.W. Bush for four years, I might be expected to bring a skeptical and partisan perspective to allegations of torture and abuse by U.S. forces. I might even be expected to join those who, on the one hand, deny that U.S. personnel have engaged in systematic use of torture while, on the other, claiming that such abuse is justified. But I cannot do so.

It's precisely because of my devotion to country, respect for our military and commitment to the ethics of the medical profession that I speak out against systematic, government-sanctioned torture and excessive abuse of prisoners during our war on terrorism. I am also deeply disturbed by the reported complicity in these abuses of military medical personnel. This extraordinary shift in policy and values is alien to my concept of modern-day America and of my government and profession.

The military prides itself, as do physicians, on being professional in every sense of the word. It fosters leadership and discipline. When I served as White House physician, my entire professional staff was drawn from the military, and they were among the best and most competent people I have met, without qualification.

The military ethics that I know absolutely prohibit anything resembling torture. There are several good reasons for this. Prisoners should be treated as we would expect our prisoners to be treated. Discipline and order in the military ranks depend to a large extent on compliance with the prohibition of torture -- indeed, weak or damaged psyches inclined toward torture or abuse have generally been weeded out of the military, or at the very least given less responsibility. In addition, military leaders have long been aware that torture inflicts lasting damage on both the victim and the torturer. The systematic infliction of torture engenders deep hatred and hostility that transcends generations. And it perverts the role of medical personnel from healers to instruments of abuse.

Today, however, it seems as though our government and the military have slipped into Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness." The widespread reports of torture and ill-treatment -- frequently based on military and government documents -- defy the claim that this abusive behavior is limited to a few noncommissioned officers at Abu Ghraib or isolated incidents at Guantanamo Bay. When it comes to torture, the military's traditional leadership and discipline have been severely compromised up and down the chain of command. Why? I fear it is because the military has bowed to errant civilian leadership.

Our medical code of ethics requires us to oppose torture wherever it is inflicted, for any reason. Guided by this ethic, I served as a volunteer with the international group MEDICO in 1963, taking care of people who had been tortured by the French during Algeria's civil war. I remain deeply affected by that experience today -- by the people I tried to help and could not, and by their families, which suffered the most terrible grief. I heard the victims' stories, examined their permanently broken bodies and looked into faces that could not see me because of the irreparable damage done not only to their senses but also to their brains. As I have studied reports of torture throughout our troubled world since then, I have always found comfort in knowing that at least it did not occur here, not among Americans.

Now that comfort is shattered. Reports of torture by U.S. forces have been accompanied by evidence that military medical personnel have played a role in this abuse and by new military ethical guidelines that in effect authorize complicity by health professionals in ill-treatment of detainees. These new guidelines distort traditional ethical rules beyond recognition to serve the interests of interrogators, not doctors and detainees.

I urge my fellow health professionals to join me and many others in reaffirming our ethical commitment to prevent torture; to clearly state that systematic torture, sanctioned by the government and aided and abetted by our own profession, is not acceptable. As health professionals, we should support the growing calls for an independent, bipartisan commission to investigate torture in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere, and demand restoration of ethical standards that protect physicians, nurses, medics and psychologists from becoming facilitators of abuse.

America cannot continue down this road. Torture demonstrates weakness, not strength. It does not show understanding, power or magnanimity. It is not leadership. It is a reaction of government officials overwhelmed by fear who succumb to conduct unworthy of them and of the citizens of the United States.

The writer is a former physician to the president to George H.W. Bush and a board member of Physicians for Human Rights. He will take questions today at 12:30 p.m. onhttp://www.washingtonpost.com.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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