Stephen N. Xenakis


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In late 2002 and early 2003, Mohammed al-Qahtani, more commonly known as the "twentieth hijacker," underwent a series of interrogations at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. According to interrogation logs obtained by Time magazine, al-Qahtani was questioned for eighteen to twenty hours each day, for forty-eight days. He was threatened with dogs, exposed to sweltering heat and icy cold, placed in "stress positions," prevented from sleeping for several consecutive days at a time, stripped naked and humiliated by female interrogators. At one point, his temperature fell to a potentially fatal ninety-five degrees. On another, his heartbeat dropped to thirty-five beats per minute (a normal resting heartbeat is sixty to one hundred beats per minute).

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On these occasions, a doctor treated al-Qahtani in order to return him to his interrogators. Once, while Qahtani was being treated by doctors for hypothermia, loud music was played to prevent him from sleeping. And when interrogators were having difficulty breaking Qahtani down, they sought to humiliate him further. A medical corpsman injected him with three and a half bags of intravenous fluid. Qahtani was refused permission to go to the bathroom and urinated in his pants.

The participation of doctors and military medical officers in these activities was a clear violation of the basic code of medical ethics to "first do no harm." The roles and responsibilities of military medical officers conform to ethics and principles that have been widely recognized across national boundaries and military engagements. Medical officers are expected to stand up for these professional principles at all times, and treat all soldiers, even the enemy captured in combat, with dignity and humanity. The American Medical Association has issued ethical guidelines stating that physicians should not conduct, monitor, or directly participate in the interrogation of prisoners or detainees, and are required to report coercive interrogations to authorities.

It is troubling enough that the military physicians have been put in a position that compromises their fundamental ethics. Yet there is an even greater danger to our national security when physicians are used as agents of pain and harm. When doctors are implicated in cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, then the credibility of our military and our nation suffers across the globe. The assertion that physicians are participating in torture unravels any argument that America is acting on high moral principles.

Although military doctors serve alongside soldiers and interrogators in our armed forces, their roles and responsibilities are not the same. Soldiers are trained to kill, interrogators to extract information. Doctors are different; they hold a special place in the hearts of people throughout the world because of the powers their training gives them to relieve suffering. The idea that military doctors would use those skills and techniques to inflict pain, or to aid those who cause suffering, is shocking. By putting physicians in that position, our government has sent a horrible message to the world.

Until now, perhaps the most well-known image of the American military doctor was Hawkeye Pierce of M.A.S.H., who protected his patients from dubious orders from his superiors, even when his patients were enemy soldiers. Now, the world's impression of the American military doctor is something quite different. The International Committee of the Red Cross has accused American military physicians of participating in actions that are "tantamount to torture." Al Jazeera and the BBC have reported extensively on the role that physicians have played in the abuse of detainees.

Military commanders have long recognized that torture and cruelty undermine and endanger our service members. Our troops in Baghdad face danger every day as they combat an aggressive insurgency. The legitimacy of their mission is degraded by the slightest hint of impropriety. It is hard to imagine anything more damaging than reports that American physicians have been implicated in brutality toward prisoners. The practice of torture and abuse must end, in order to preserve the honor of our physicians and our country.

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Stephen N. Xenakis, MD, is a retired brigadier general in the U.S. Army.  
 
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