Essay: Doctors of Interrogation

Jonathan H. Marks

The Hastings Center Report. 2005;17(4):265-270, 295. 

In This Article


"We are busy with a little interrogation here. But our friend is taking some strain. He says he can't breathe properly. Could you just take a look at him? . . . [I]s he faking it? . . . In your opinion, as a doctor, how much more can he take?" —Damon Galgut, The Good Doctor

These questions were addressed to a young South African army doctor as he stood before a bruised man who was lying on the floor and breathing heavily. The doctor had been conscripted, given the rank of lieutenant, and assigned to a small field hospital near the Angolan border. Until that moment, his responsibilities had been limited to medical care: treating the sick or wounded. But now he had been summoned by the camp commandant to perform a different task, one that would haunt him for years to come. The doctor considered the questions "insane, . . . the measuring points of an inverted world" in which doctors are called upon, not to "heal and repair," but to assist in the "calculated demolition of nerves and flesh." But the glare of the commandant's "dead eyes" reminded the doctor what was being asked of him. He told himself: "The man on the floor is an enemy, who will in any case not last the night. It is myself I must look after." The doctor provided the assurance requested ("He won't die yet"), was amiably thanked for his advice, and permitted to depart. In the days that followed, his guilt was subdued by rationalization: "It would have made no difference. You didn't have a choice. You only answered the question."

This is a fictitious account of the so-called "dark art of interrogation" in the darkest days of Apartheid. But factual counterparts abound. There are numerous reports of real doctors in grim "inverted worlds" where they are no longer called upon to heal.[1] Most recently, there has been mounting evidence of physician complicity in abusive interrogation at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.[2] These revelations give Galgut's story greater resonance. Voices that address the legal, ethical, and practical ramifications of physician involvement in interrogation are vital to any discussion of this topic. However, the voices of American physicians complicit in aggressive interrogations have—perhaps not surprisingly—been absent from the debate. Literature—which is neither muted by the fear of speaking out nor silenced by orders from superiors—may remind us what is at stake when we bring physicians into interrogation.