Larry James and the ethics of following orders

Colonel Larry James, an army psychologist who was the intelligence psychologist at both Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, is now being considered for the division executive director position in MU's College of Education.

I found out about James’ potential hiring on Thursday evening. On Friday afternoon, I joined a group of students, community and religious leaders who marched to the College of Education to hand deliver a petition decrying his selection as a potential hire.

As a military psychologist, Larry James was responsible for evaluating the psychological treatment of the prisoners and Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. In response to his service, the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard’s School of Law submitted a 50-page ethical complaint with 1,000 supporting documents to the Ohio State Board of Psychology. Another complaint was filed with the Louisiana psychological board. Neither board took action. Louisiana responded that his actions dated past the statute of limitations; Ohio simply said they were “unable to proceed with formal action.”

This is far from a declaration of innocence, and yet, for the university's search committee, this was not serious enough a concern to screen out James as a prospective job candidate.

When interviewed via Skype by the committee, Larry James explained that his role was as a consultant to a general, and that he was following orders. But he made no effort to alert authorities of the abuse that was eventually leaked to the press, and Abu Ghraib became one of America’s most infamous international scandals.

In one of her landmark publications, the public intellectual Hannah Arendt coined the term “The Banality of Evil.” The idea is that an individual would partake in evil actions because they had surrendered their ability to make moral choices in order to follow orders. She wrote, “His guilt came from obedience . . . . He merely, to put it colloquially, never realized what he was doing.”

In his autobiography “Fixing Hell,” James describes one incident in which he watched a male Muslim detainee forced to wear pink women’s lingerie, lipstick and a woman’s wig while he was physically beaten. Larry James’ response? He “opened [his] thermos, poured a cup of coffee, and watched the episode play out, hoping it would take a better turn and not wanting to interfere without good reason …”

I’ll again quote Arendt: “This shows to what extent violence and its arbitrary nature were taken for granted and therefore neglected; no one questions or examines what is obvious to all.”

Larry James showed an unquestioning dedication to authority and a shocking lack of morality. Under the American Psychological Association’s code of ethics there is a primary order to do no harm, and that was the order Larry James failed to follow.

In his book, he described Afghani boys as “flat-out dumber than a bag of rocks” and called a female soldier a “short, fat, seriously ugly young lady.” During his time at Guantanamo Bay, boys as young as 12 were abused and exposed to “enhanced interrogation techniques,” and threatened with rape and death.

The executive director position for which he is being considered includes leadership in counseling psychology and educational leadership and policy analysis.

During Friday’s march, the Muslim Student’s Organization vice president Aamer Trambu aptly noted that Larry James was hardly an exemplar of the university’s value of respect, since he has shown so little respect towards human life. This is to say nothing of the university’s other values of responsibility, discovery and excellence. To hire Larry James would mean the banners waving these words and hanging from the historical columns are nothing but decoration.

The Dean of the School of Education spoke to the group of protestors, and said we were to give Larry James a “fair” chance. Let’s not equivocate on the word fairness.

It was not fair for groups of men and boys to be abducted from their homes and countries and sent to prison facilities under the U.S. policy of extraordinary rendition.

It was not fair for humans to be tortured at the U.S. Black sites Abu Ghraib while Larry James was present and among those who did nothing.

It was not fair for those people to be broken down psychologically using methods that Larry James potentially helped create.

It was not fair that these men were detained without so much as a trial, and that 11 years later, dozens continue to languish at Guantanamo Bay and countless other sites today.

It would not be fair to the university’s students, faculty, alumni and reputation to hire Larry James.

As for the school of education’s search committee, at best, they show gullibility and immense naiveté. At worst, they would be tacitly endorsing his ethics and despicable history.

Rather than conclude by quoting Arendt, I’ll quote our 43rd president from 2003 when he gave his ultimatum to Iraq, “And it will be no defense to say, 'I was just following orders.'”

Nabihah Maqbool

About Nabihah Maqbool

Nabihah Maqbool graduated from the University of Missouri with degrees in Political Science, Biology, a minor in Philosophy and a Master of Public Health. She is a member of the Islamic Center of Central Missouri.

6 Responses to “Larry James and the ethics of following orders”

  1. Steve Swope

    Thank you, Nabihah, for your cogent comments! What is most troubling to me, here in Columbia and across the country, is that if the reported actions had been done to Christian soldiers captured by armies of another faith, most Americans would respond in righteous indignation and cry out for the worst of penalties. If we want respectful treatment for our own people and beliefs, we have to give it to others. What kind of message would this hire send about the University’s value of diversity?

  2. Uoldo M

    @Steve Swope: I agree, except for “IF the reported actions had be done to Christian soldiers captured by armies of another faith”. U.S. soldiers HAVE been taken captive and executed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Reporter Daniel Pearl and contractor Nick Berg were beheaded. And the casualties of 911 are part of the story. War is brutal business, not characterized by “mutual respect”.

  3. Nabihah Maqbool

    I disagree with your anaology Uoldo. Yes, horrible things happen in war, but the difference between the reporters that you mentioned that have been killed is that it was done so by non government actors and extremist groups, not by government actors.

    When the US government begins to endorse and and tacitly allow a program of torture and humiliation, we are stooping to the standards of the people we say we are trying to fight. My government should not be part of a tit for tat retribution when we are signed to international conventions against the very things we let happen during warfare.

  4. Uoldo M

    No analogy intended.

  5. Steve Swope

    Uoldo, the point is that no matter what others may do, our country’s foundational ideals do not condone torture or “enhanced interrogation” as practiced at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and never have. We have been false to our own values as well as the consensus of the world.

    That others – rogue individuals and small groups – may violate those ideals is not a suitable rationale for us to do so. We claim to offer the world an alternative; we do not, if we only imitate the worst of the world.

  6. Greg Lammers

    Nabihah, everything you cite as unfair is exactly that. Once someone has clearly demonstrated more regard for command than for human beings, they’ve demonstrated that they are unfit to lead, unfit to train. Their example is only useful as a warning.

    This is one reason that a natural, healthy, lack of respect for hierarchies, orders, traditions, and conventions, must be nurtured.


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