A liberal arts education challenges students not only to pursue their passions, but also to bring these passions into the world in ways that challenge conventions and improve everyday life. Each year, the psychology department awards students for attempting to do just that.
The Gordon Allport Award, established in 1983, honors those who enrich their personal lives through their educational pursuits and promise to leave the world a better place than they found it. On March 7, students and faculty gathered to congratulate winner Robin Stramp ’14 and celebrate the spirit of the award with a captivating lecture from notable bioethicist Dr. Steven Miles ’74.
As a recipient of the St. Olaf Alumni Achievement Award, Miles is an exemplary Ole whose life work has been devoted to exploring current dilemmas in the bioethical field. Furthermore, he is widely regarded as a go-to authority on the ethical issue of physician involvement in torture interrogation, one of the main focuses of his Allport Award lecture.
Miles’s address to the department, entitled “Military Psychology and the War on Terror: Lessons from Abu Ghraib,” proved an intriguing, eye-opening and at times horrifying glimpse into the abusive interrogation techniques employed by American physicians as part of the war on terror. The lecture owed much to his recent detailed examination of over 60,000 pages of previously unreleased government documents, which are described in greater detail in his latest book, “Oath Betrayed: Torture, Medical Complicity and the War on Terror.”
Miles began the presentation with the infamous photos of tortured prisoners at Abu Ghraib and asked, “Where was the medical staff when these pictures were being taken?” The question established the context of his unique investigation. Rather than simply pinning the blame on the prison guards, Miles holds the physicians and psychiatrists, employed by the government in internment centers, morally responsible for much of the atrocious torture these photos depict.
Miles admitted his research helped him uncover what he already expected to find. His access to the Department of Defense’s classified files revealed thousands of cases of prisoner abuse justified, and often times encouraged, by a medical professional.
Wading through heavily-censored documents laden with dense military jargon and intricate cross-referencing, Miles discovered how the Department of Defense manages to elude the international protocols of the Geneva Convention. The presence of a trained physician during an interrogation supposedly gives torture a level of credibility and safety.
Despite recent CIA research on coercive interrogation, which proved that the threat of death rarely leads to prisoner cooperation, torture continues to be used on prisoners of war in high security prisons like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, partly due to the increase in what are known as enhanced interrogation techniques.
These forms of torture, often developed by on-site volunteer psychologists and psychiatrists, focus on breaking down an individual through psychological practices, from sleep deprivation to induced hypothermia, in order to push the prisoner to confession.
Miles observes that this blatant misuse of medical knowledge often has a psychological toll on those participating in it as well, especially for those who maintain silence despite witnessing atrocities for the sake of keeping their jobs.
“The risks of speaking out are high, perhaps,” Miles said, “but you will certainly sleep better at night.”
The Allport Award commemorates the life of Dr. Gordon Allport, a professor of psychology at Harvard University whose profound faith in the inherent goodness of humanity inspired one of his students, Professor Emeritus Olaf Millert, to establish an award recognizing Oles who embody Allport’s views on the limitless potential of humankind.
While being a well-rounded and academically excellent student certainly helps, self-nominated Allport Award candidates are women and men within the psychology department who have faced adversity and worked beyond typical psychology niches to explore innovative possibilities within the field.