Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Ariel Dorfman in the Washington Post

September 24, 2006

It still haunts me, the first time -- it was in Chile, in October of 1973 -- that I met someone who had been tortured. To save my life, I had sought refuge in the Argentine Embassy some weeks after the coup that had toppled the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende, a government for which I had worked. And then, suddenly, one afternoon, there he was. A large-boned man, gaunt and yet strangely flabby, with eyes like a child, eyes that could not stop blinking and a body that could not stop shivering.

That is what stays with me -- that he was cold under the balmy afternoon sun of Santiago de Chile, trembling as though he would never be warm again, as though the electric current was still coursing through him. Still possessed, somehow still inhabited by his captors, still imprisoned in that cell in the National Stadium, his hands disobeying the orders from his brain to quell the shuddering, his body unable to forget what had been done to it just as, nearly 33 years later, I, too, cannot banish that devastated life from my memory.

It was his image, in fact, that swirled up from the past as I pondered the current political debate in the United States about the practicality of torture. Something in me must have needed to resurrect that victim, force my fellow citizens here to spend a few minutes with the eternal iciness that had settled into that man's heart and flesh, and demand that they take a good hard look at him before anyone dare maintain that, to save lives, it might be necessary to inflict unbearable pain on a fellow human being. Perhaps the optimist in me hoped that this damaged Argentine man could, all these decades later, help shatter the perverse innocence of contemporary Americans, just as he had burst the bubble of ignorance protecting the young Chilean I used to be, someone who back then had encountered torture mainly through books and movies and newspaper reports.

That is not, however, the only lesson that today's ruthless world can learn from that distant man condemned to shiver forever.

All those years ago, that torture victim kept moving his lips, trying to articulate an explanation, muttering the same words over and over. "It was a mistake," he repeated, and in the next few days I pieced together his sad and foolish tale. He was an Argentine revolutionary who had fled his homeland and, as soon as he had crossed the mountains into Chile, had begun to boast about what he would do to the military there if it staged a coup, about his expertise with arms of every sort, about his colossal stash of weapons. Bluster and braggadocio -- and every word of it false.

But how could he convince those men who were beating him, hooking his penis to electric wires and waterboarding him? How could he prove to them that he had been lying, prancing in front of his Chilean comrades, just trying to impress the ladies with his fraudulent insurgent persona?

Of course, he couldn't. He confessed to anything and everything they wanted to drag from his hoarse, howling throat; he invented accomplices and addresses and culprits; and then, when it became apparent that all this was imaginary, he was subjected to further ordeals.

There was no escape.

That is the hideous predicament of the torture victim. It was always the same story, what I discovered in the ensuing years, as I became an unwilling expert on all manner of torments and degradations, my life and my writing overflowing with grief from every continent. Each of those mutilated spines and fractured lives -- Chinese, Guatemalan, Egyptian, Indonesian, Iranian, Uzbek, need I go on? -- all of them, men and women alike, surrendered the same story of essential asymmetry, where one man has all the power in the world and the other has nothing but pain, where one man can decree death at the flick of a wrist and the other can only pray that the wrist will be flicked soon.

It is a story that our species has listened to with mounting revulsion, a horror that has led almost every nation to sign treaties over the past decades declaring these abominations as crimes against humanity, transgressions interdicted all across the earth. That is the wisdom, national and international, that has taken us thousands of years of tribulation and shame to achieve. That is the wisdom we are being asked to throw away when we formulate the question -- Does torture work? -- when we allow ourselves to ask whether we can afford to outlaw torture if we want to defeat terrorism.

I will leave others to claim that torture, in fact, does not work, that confessions obtained under duress -- such as that extracted from the heaving body of that poor Argentine braggart in some Santiago cesspool in 1973 -- are useless. Or to contend that the United States had better not do that to anyone in our custody lest someday another nation or entity or group decides to treat our prisoners the same way.

I find these arguments -- and there are many more -- to be irrefutable. But I cannot bring myself to use them, for fear of honoring the debate by participating in it.

Can't the United States see that when we allow someone to be tortured by our agents, it is not only the victim and the perpetrator who are corrupted, not only the "intelligence" that is contaminated, but also everyone who looked away and said they did not know, everyone who consented tacitly to that outrage so they could sleep a little safer at night, all the citizens who did not march in the streets by the millions to demand the resignation of whoever suggested, even whispered, that torture is inevitable in our day and age, that we must embrace its darkness?

Are we so morally sick, so deaf and dumb and blind, that we do not understand this? Are we so fearful, so in love with our own security and steeped in our own pain, that we are really willing to let people be tortured in the name of America? Have we so lost our bearings that we do not realize that each of us could be that hapless Argentine who sat under the Santiago sun, so possessed by the evil done to him that he could not stop shivering?

I wrote the following essay on December 2, 2002; I think Americans certainly can and should stand up against the torture policies and practices of Commander-in-Chief Bush and US military personnel and contractors. But I think we should also be prepared to care for those who have been tortured, and forgive and heal those who have tortured.

Mercy is the key.

In the November 4, 2002 issue of The Nation, Hector Timerman quoted Bosnian diplomat Sven Alkalaj:

"It cannot be stressed enough that the punishment of the guilty and some measure of justice are absolutely necessary for forgiveness or reconciliation even to be considered. If genocide goes unpunished, it will set a precedent for tomorrow’s genocide. Without justice, there can never be reconciliation and real peace."

But human life is not a machine into which the input of A and the process of B will yield the product C. Justice is not a real thing, separate, that we humans can pick up and hold, or stand around and point to. Justice is an idea in each person’s mind, identical to fairness, rightness, or goodness, and it only exists fleetingly, in the moment in which we act with justice. Justice is like freedom, which is not a thing the Founding Fathers gave to some of our white male ancestors and John Ashcroft can now take away from us and our children.

Like justice, freedom can only exist in the moment it is expressed, in the instant when a soldier refuses an order to shoot, or when a neighbor refuses an invitation to report a neighbor’s comment against war and pulls his hand away from the telephone. Freedom exists in the daily choice a prisoner makes, over and over, to keep his mind and heart open, to continue to live and learn all he can, to refuse to give in to anger and hatred toward his jailer.

Alkalaj sets up a logical circle broken at two intervals by thick walls.

He assumes we want peace. All people want peace. No one, given a free choice, would ask to live in a war zone or freeze to death in the rubble of her bombed-out home. No one would request that his sons and daughters be conscripted to fight and die, or that her grandparents starve to death when supply roads are blockaded by military envoys. I assume this also. All people, all living creatures, want to live in peace.

Alkalaj then says that without punishment and justice, we cannot have peace. But this hurdle is too great; these walls are too thick. Who among us can remember all those who have committed an injustice against us? We can remember a few perhaps. I can remember a professor who manipulated me into physical and emotional violations of my integrity. I can remember an unscrupulous used car salesman who sold us a car that did not run. I can remember injustices my mother and father inflicted upon me as a child, decisions they made about my life in which I had no say.

But what would appropriate punishment look like? My professor manipulated another student. She reported him. Her testimony, with mine, was enough to put a letter in his file and prevent him from getting a raise for one year. It did not bring back the years of depression and uncertainty I endured while trying to recover from the experience. Was it justice? What if I had been able to report the car salesman, and he had been fined or ordered to pay us back the money we lost? It would not make the car run. It would not have gotten us to places we needed to be those several months, or brought back that lost time. What if I could punish my parents for their years of criticism and contempt? What would I do? Subject them to being children of cruel and tyrannical parents of their own? It’s already been done: I know from whom my parents learned to parent. And now I am a parent myself.

What of the injustices I have committed, I commit? I have been angry. I have hurt peoples’ feelings. I have neglected responsibilities. I have been tired and frustrated and manipulative too. What should my punishment look like, for justice to be served? Clearly, I should be subjected to the anger, neglect and manipulation of others. I already have been. We all have.

To believe the words of Alkalaj, to set justice as the precondition for reconciliation, is to negate the power, the freedom, of each individual to choose to act with generosity of spirit. People can and do, indeed we must, forgive small and large atrocities without seeking or finding justice beforehand. Forgiveness is something we do for our own sake -- not to live with the eternal torment of anger and despair, waiting for a prior wholeness impossible to regain. And we do it for the sake of those who have harmed us -- not to burden them with the eternal torment of guilt, humiliation and regret, hoping incessantly for a release from pain which we alone can offer them.

Hector Timerman went on to write: “Pardon is a decision that belongs only to the injured party,” explaining that he cannot pardon the Argentinean military and government for crimes committed against his parents. His parents are now dead, and with their bodies, buried is all chance for reconciliation.

This, too, is a dead end. If we cannot forgive those who commit atrocities for the harm they inflicted on those who lived before us and live no more, then we may as well give up the universal dream for peace right now, right here. The atrocities have always already been done, and the survivors are the only ones able to move on and make choices. We can forgive on behalf of others, and we can even believe that such forgiveness is what they would want, were they still alive. “The anger must stop with you,” they would say, they who have nothing left to lose. “Not the buck. The anger. And the fear. What are you afraid of, that you refuse to forgive? What do you think will happen if you set your oppressors free?”

Ah, but Alkalaj tells us what we are afraid of. We are afraid of the slippery slope, which we always imagine leading down, not up. We worry that allowing abortions will open the floodgates to infanticide and euthanasia, pretending that those things do not already happen and have not happened forever. We do not seem to consider what might happen if all people were free to make all choices from birth onward, whether arranging families and work and homes to meet basic human needs would set us off on a slippery slope upward, to a time when “unwanted pregnancy” becomes an oxymoron.

Alkalaj tells us we are afraid that “if genocide goes unpunished, it will set a precedent for tomorrow’s genocide.” And Timerman writes: “the rabbis tell us that ‘he who is merciful to the cruel will feel indifference for the innocent.’ ”

Perhaps. But if genocide goes punished, and the punishment is more genocide, more killing, or if the punishment is more imprisonment, more humiliation, then that too will set a precedent for tomorrow’s genocide.

What if genocide goes forgiven? What if a group commits mass murder, thousands of people lie bloody in the fields and streets, and the world stands by, not idly, but with forgiveness? Would such a stance set a precedent for tomorrow’s forgiveness? Would such an attitude, on the part of the whole world: US, UN, whatever you like, establish a firm and unyielding example of mercy for the mass murderers to see, and perhaps follow? Have any group of mass murders ever been shown such respect for their inescapable humanity? How could they keep their balance, their momentum for killing? What would be the point? From which tortured group would they find fresh recruits?

There are people on this earth who refuse to kill other people and destroy the handwork of other people. There are people on this earth who refuse to dump poisons into the air, water and land. There are people on this earth who spend all their time and energy growing, tending and healing the living things around them. What makes these people so special? Why do they refrain from abuse? These people are most of us. What do we know about ourselves, and what keeps us striving to grow, care and heal? How can we teach what we know to those who feel compelled to cut down, injure and destroy?

It has been done before, this radical forgiveness. Jesus urged listeners to endure suffering without retaliation. Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. set the same example. Radical forgiveness is not new, but neither is terrorism new. People have always been afraid of something. Life is fragile. We have always had good reasons to feel insecure. Terrorism is not new, and knowing about terrorism is not new. Even without newspapers and the Internet, even without political treatises and satellite television, people have known that marauders would kill and rape and burn homes, that the plague would strike them down, that floods and famines would destroy their villages and families.

Knowing about human injustice and greed is not new. People have always known that when we have something, we have a desire for something more, and a fear of losing what we have. People have always known that the fear of not getting what we want, or losing what we have, drives some people to violence in a briefly satisfying but ultimately useless attempt to find security in gathering quantities of stuff. Land. Gold. Oil. Water. It doesn’t matter what the stuff is: the underlying greed and fear have always been the same.

We have been told not to judge others, lest we be judged as harshly as we judge each other. Yet we have built up a “justice” system filled with judges whose job it is to judge others, in the name of society. We have been told: “Let the one that is without sin cast the first stone.” Yet we have built up a military system filled with huge stones and trained people whose job it is to throw those stones at other people, in the name of society.

If there were a wise person among us today, of the caliber and reputation of Jesus, or Gandhi, or Martin Luther King Jr., he or she would paraphrase Luke 6:27:

“But I tell to you who hear me: Love Saddam Hussein, do good to Al Qaeda, bless those who suicide bomb you, pray for those who send anthrax though the mail. If someone destroys two skyscrapers and the Pentagon, turn to him two more skyscrapers and the Department of Justice. If your employer takes your pension fund and retirement account, do not stop him from taking your savings account also. Give to every charity that sends you a request letter and if George Bush and Dick Cheney steal your social program and education budget to build nuclear bombs, do not demand your social programs back. Do to others as you would have them do unto you.

If you love those who give you fat bonuses and promotions, what credit is that to you? Even corrupt politicians love those who give fat donations and corporate board seats. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even megabanks lend to multinational corporate polluters and human rights violators, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back...Then your reward will be great...Be merciful.”

What are we waiting for? So many of us seem to insist that salvation must come from without, or above, while
we lie here passively on earth. We resist recognizing that salvation can only come from within, from actively transforming each of ourselves into homo sapiens merciful-us: the thinking monkeys who prize mercy equally with intellect. Mercy: kindness in excess of what may be expected or demanded by fairness.

Mercy has always already been rising within us, and we are always already free to let it out into the world around us. It is equally true that fear and greed are always already rising within us. The things we fear and the things we desire may change from time to time, but not the fear and desire we experience.

What if peace is only a matter of reaching a critical mass of mercy? What if that critical mass is the only form of energy powerful enough to overcome the critical mass of hatred and nuclear radiation?

Shakespeare passed the message on through the lips of Portia:

"The quality of mercy is not strained, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice blest, it blesseth him that gives and him that takes. ‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest, it becomes the throned monarch better than his crown. His sceptre shows the force of temporal power, the attribute to awe and majesty, wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings; but mercy is above this sceptred sway, it is enthroned in the hearts of kings, it is an attribute to God himself, and earthly power doth then show likest God’s when mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew, though justice be thy plea, consider this: that in the course of justice none of us should see salvation. We do pray for mercy, and that same prayer doth teach us all to render the deeds of mercy..."

Some of us may be angry at the Powers That Be for taking us into war, but forgive them we must: before, during and after the war. The Powers That Be may be jealous of the leaders of other nations, for holding onto power, weapons, land, resources. But forgive them they must: before, during and after the war. Without mercy, the eternal war in which we have always already been born and now live will never end. It has always already been going on, and it will always already be within our power to step out of the circle and stop it.


  • Torture is a very unreliable way to extract reliable information. Most people will say whatever is required, in order to stop the torture.

    This reason for why torture should not be used is aparts from the obvious. It disrespects the value and worth of the individual human being.

    By Blogger beepbeepitsme, At 9:14 AM  

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