They live invisibly among us, 41,000 in the Washington area, half a million in the United States. They are survivors of horrific political torture. Unless they open their shirts, you detect few visible scars. “The mark of torture is more inside than out,” says “Elena,” a woman from Gabon who uses a wheelchair.
(Because everyone interviewed has living relatives in their native lands, all names have been changed at their request.)
Americans with no experience deceive themselves about torture. A friend told me that when the US tortured people it was somehow more humane.
But talk to torture victims at the annual gathering of the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition (TASSC) and they tell you that torture, whatever its guise, is always immoral.
In the early 1980s, Miguel was held prisoner for four years by the Marcos regime in the Philippines. “Torture is always wrong,” he says. “It uses terrorism to try to destroy terrorism. The torturer becomes the terrorist. You think you establish order by breaking the law.”
Torture breaks people as well as the law. Yvette from Cameroon speaks slowly, vacantly, and without focus. One of the TASSC directors acknowledged that “her mind has yet to heal.”
Yvette was tortured for belonging to a human rights defense group in Cameroon. Police were seeking information on political dissidents. “I was beaten continuously,” she says. “They slapped my face and head for three days. I don’t know how long I was unconscious.” When Yvette regained consciousness, she was unable to walk for a week, her legs having been beaten with police batons.
“I think the pain will never stop,” she says. “I still shake when I hear police sirens.”
“Even in Washington, D.C.?” I ask.
“Yes. I feel like they’re after me again.”
Perpetrators of torture share a common rationale: national security. “They tell you torture keeps your families safe and secure,” says Miguel.
What about the Israeli argument – that torture can thwart a suicide bomber, or the American version: “What if Islamic terrorists planted a suitcase-sized nuclear bomb in New York City?”
I put that question to torture survivors. One asked, “Why torture anyone? Wouldn’t you be better off finding an imam ... to sit with the prisoner and let him persuade a suspect it’s morally wrong to take innocent lives?”
Of the dozen survivors I interviewed, people from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, each said torture doesn’t work. In 2008, Mary from Uganda was beaten, gang raped, and terrorized in prison. Her crime? Being a member of the opposition party. “When they torture you, two things happen,” she says. “First they make you crazy. Next, you believe you’re going to die, so there’s no point in confessing.”
Given the harshness of the interrogation techniques his administration authorized, former President George W. Bush was disingenuous when he insisted in 2006 that the US doesn’t torture. He should first have consulted his father, a former CIA director, about the effectiveness of torturing an enemy.
An Ethiopian named Thomas spoke to that. “Instead of breaking you, it [torture] hardens you,” he says. Security forces threatened to shoot him, saying, “We’re just going to kill you. No one can save you. We’ll say we shot you trying to escape.”
“You think you are losing your mind,” he recalls. But, the former nongovernmental organization worker adds proudly, “I never revealed anything.”
It was the same with Miguel. Drunken soldiers walked him to a beach, pointing guns at him and asking, “You want us to bury you here six feet deep or out there 10 feet under water?” He collapsed in a faint.
The waterboarding technique used by American interrogators this past decade is little different: It’s an implicit threat to kill suspects through drowning – Russian roulette played with a wet towel. To see for yourself, watch journalist Christopher Hitchens (voluntarily) get waterboarded on YouTube. Last year, President Obama banned waterboarding.
Fortunate torture survivors sometimes get asylum in the US. By word of mouth, they learn of TASSC. Officials Miguel and Daoud, both torture survivors, shepherd the newcomers, finding them psychiatric help and shelter. In group counseling, perhaps the most difficult question they deal with is, “Why did this happen to me?”
A 2006 survey showed that a third of the world supports some degree of torture to combat terrorism. Yet we deceive ourselves pretending it does not also destroy our own decency and humanity. Support for torture was highest in Israel, at 43 percent; it was 36 percent in America. The fallacy of torture is the notion that terrorizing others makes us more secure.
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