In this blog, I am going to discuss the psychological consequences of the penetrance of terror in society and the media at large. A mindset that American enemies are everywhere may have provided justification for the participation of doctors in the human rights abuses at Abu Ghraib.

Let me begin with a brief historical background outlining the humanistic responsibilities doctors have to their patients, first codified into international law after WWII. In the opening statement of the Doctors Trial at Nuremberg, Germany on December 9, 1946, General Telford Taylor passionately quoted a statement by Justice Jackson a year earlier.

“The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant, and so devastating, that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored because it cannot survive their being repeated.”

Taylor was referring to the acts of torture and sadism which several Nazi doctors used to test and promulgate their theories of eugenics. The SS and medical doctors had embarked on a series of experiments performed on prisoners of war or concentration camp inmates. These experiments included freezing to death and deliberate injections of fatal diseases.

And so bioethics was born, soon after the trial, in the Declaration of Geneva, 1948 at the Second World Medical Assembly. This new Medical Code of Ethics, which dedicated the lives of physicians to the service of humanity and the rights of the patient, first and foremost, was unfortunately too vague to put into difficult questions of practice. Violations were just too difficult to regularly prosecute. Part of that pledge, which has since been reworked and updated, stated idealistically,

“I will not permit considerations of religion, nationality, race, party politics or social standing to intervene between my duty and my patient; I will maintain the utmost respect for human life, from the time of its conception, even under threat, I will not use my medical knowledge contrary to the laws of humanity; I make these promises solemnly, freely and upon my honour… ”

Of course, at the same time at this fateful proclamation, British doctors were falsifying death certificates of victims of torture in the concentration camps of the Mau Mau Emergency in Kenya. How could medical doctors, so trusted for their idealistic mission of saving life, participate wholesale in a policy of torture and non-respect for human life?

The Pentagon’s recent refusal to further investigate the charges of Stephen H. Miles, in light of the shocking treatment exposed at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and other prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan seems to be another example of an attempt to gloss over these atrocious human rights violations and protect an institutional culture simply characterized by abuse of power. Miles, a professor of bioethics at the University of Minnesota, and former president of the American Association of Bioethics, charges that not only were prisoners psychologically and sexually harrassed by prison guards, medics collaborated in falsifying death certificates, covering up evidence of beatings, and designing other tactics for coercive interrogations. Other charges specify that medical doctors violated their patient confidentiality agreements and their professional duties by turning over patient medical records to interrogators. These allegations, prepared in detail by the Red Cross, further stated that such knowledge would give interrogators immense power and leverage in interrogation.

Urging doctors to break their silence and break out of what is known as their “obedience dilemma,” is just the first step to documenting, punishing, and ultimately understanding these lapses in professional judgement. It has long been know that individuals will violate the guidelines of their con­science in order to comply to an authority figure. Such a phenomenon is not just a dilemma for a democratic society; government-mandated violence and the crisis of policing is also the dilemma of the postcolonial state. Terror, in many ways, plays out in a drama enacted by civilians and the state: “the metaphysics of disorder,” or an imagination of upcoming social meltdown, as described by anthropologists Jean and John Comaroff, in a sense, may legitimize the criminality within a nation-state. And if so, just who is to blame?

Were the doctors part of that no-holds-barred push to “regain control” against so-called “criminals” in the war against terror, causing them, in turn, to become an accomplice in torture? Remember, most of the “terrorists” at Abu Ghraib were petty criminals or innocents. If so, this is proof that the politicization of terror has definitively gone too far.

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