UD Professor leads change to APA policy

Aaron Credeur, Contributing Writer

Scott Churchill, professor of psychology, has been the leading force behind changing APA policy prohibiting psychologists from partaking in military interrogations outside the jurisdiction of the U.S. Constitution. Photo courtesy of plus. google.com.

Sleepless nights. Heart palpitations. Numerous strategies. Standing ovations.

These phrases sum up much of the past two years for Dr. Scott Churchill, University of Dallas psychology professor, and his leading role in the American Psychological Association’s (APA) prohibition of American psychologists from participating in national security interrogations.

Seated in Dr. Churchill’s office, one fact became clear: this was a grueling task that ended in triumph.

Because of Churchill’s resolution, the largest organization of psychologists in the United States, the APA, redefined its understanding of “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” aligning itself with United Nations Convention Against Torture (UNCAT) and the Geneva Conventions and condemning what these conventions deem as “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” Churchill’s resolution effectively prohibits psychologists from being employed in military and national security interrogations that operate outside the jurisdiction of the U.S. Constitution.

However, after hearing what I am convinced is the truth, it is clear to me that the U.S.’s understanding of the UNCAT is fatally flawed and that the APA’s move to redefine torture was not only necessary but heroic.

The APA also rejected the double talk of the U.S. Reservations, Understandings and Declarations which provided for an unfortunate loophole that resulted in the abuse of the law. Reservations to a treaty are a country’s stated understanding of the premises of the treaty as well as state-by-state restrictions imposed on the agreement. With regard to UNCAT and the Geneva Conventions, the U.S. reservations state that the definition of “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” applies only insofar as it is defined in the Fifth, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

The problem with this definition is that these amendments to the U.S. Constitution only protect U.S. citizens or those tried and convicted by a court of law. This means that UNCAT no longer protects non-citizens who have not yet seen due process of the law, by the American standard. This is the first critical flaw in the reservations that was exploited by those seeking justification for torture.

Another dubious problem in the U.S. reservations is the use of the term “specifically intended” when referring to the infliction of “severe physical or mental pain or suffering.” This phrase sounds agreeable to the general public, but to one educated in legal terminology, it veils a loophole. This loophole stems from the fact that there are two types of intent: specific and general. General intent could be to cause harm while specific intent could be to gain information. Something as simple as having a psychologist in the room is enough to make “gaining information” the specific intent of torture.

Once one understands the problems and equivocation involved in the U.S. reservations, it is clear that the APA should reject the U.S. stance and align itself under the jurisdiction of international law in accordance with UNCAT and urge the U.S. government to do the same. This is exact purpose of the past two years of Dr. Churchill’s work.

All physicians, including psychologists, are governed by the principle “do no harm.” We now have evidence that the compromising language of the U.S. reservations was exploited to allow physicians to violate this principle in the treatment of our enemies. International law does not contain this compromising language and ensures that justice will not be influenced by political skullduggery.

Playing ear-splitting metal music for days on end or “pulpifying” a victim’s legs qualify as “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” This matter of life and death threatens more than our enemies abroad; the assumed torture tactics of America threaten the lives of our own who are trying to simply do their jobs.

The red cross worn by American medics on the battlefield has become a bull’s-eye for enemies who see them as accomplices to torture. All evidence points to the ineffectiveness of coercive techniques in military interrogations.

The story of Dr. Churchill’s historic 156 to 1, seven abstaining victory this summer was necessary to restore the principle “do no harm,” to the APA guidelines.

I encourage anyone interested to hear it from the man himself. He will no doubt tell it much better than I can. We all need to take a moment to realize that we have an unsung hero in our midst.

“It made me feel like Mission: Impossible,” Dr. Churchill recalled. “When it was over, it felt surreal.”


  1. […] I provide a link in this paragraph to what is an article by a young man who has been my eldest niece’s boyfriend since they were in high school together. It seems to me to be the kind of thing a young man ought to be writing. He enthusiastically profiles the work of an academic in the university he attends. I wrote for my college paper too but didn’t have a piece like this there, but the writing reminds me of other pieces I wrote about 30 years ago. I wrote and acted in pursuit of ideals similar to the set he espouses when I was young. I still care about torture. However, I am in a different place now. I can’t help questioning the results of the new professional standards but as I am now I remain very glad new young men find the pursuit of public decency as compelling now as I once did. You can see Aaron Credeur’s article here. […]


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