The Missing Voices of Torture

The debate over torture would be entirely different if we could hear from those who have been through the wringer.

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'Round and 'round and 'round we go with this torture thing, shouting and squawking in a decidedly partisan squabble, quarrelling over waterboarding and whether we should release certain damning pictures, arguing about whether we're safer now or less safe now and who knew what/when/where. Fingers point and poke, and we talk on and on and on.
Missing from the debate? The voices of the tortured. For most of us, they're an abstraction, no matter which side of the debate we align ourselves.
In the American meme about torture, the tortured exist on one of two planes:

A.     The wrongly imprisoned, a stoic American war hero, a la John McCain.

B.     The correctly imprisoned brown person who falls on the shadier side of the bad-guy spectrum.

In pop culture, there's an erotic charge to torture, it's us versus them, and we get a voyeuristic thrill watching Jack Bauer do what needs to be done to save the world now!

But for those who are on the receiving end of torture, it's far from an abstraction; it is not some not-so-pleasant thing that happened to them a long time ago, and then they got over it. You don't get over torture. Ever. It's a life sentence, the gift that keeps on giving, and giving and giving.

In 2003, as a reporter for the Washington Post, I wrote a two-part series on torture survivors. I interviewed over a dozen survivors, most of them members of the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition International (TASSC). Men, women, white, black, Central Americans, South Americans, Africans, Asians, Middle Easterners. Americans. Civilians. With the exception of one young man, who was drafted as a child soldier in Angola, none of them had ever served in the military. One had been an actor working with a semi-political theatrical group in Palestine. Another was a pacifist activist in Pakistan. There was a priest from the Philippines. And an American nun who was working in Guatemala during the 1980s. None of them fit into category A or B.

It was, without question, one of the most emotionally challenging assignments of my career. I found myself mired in a deep, deep funk that lingered for weeks after the articles were published. Just listening to their stories had an unsettling effect on me. And I didn't have to live what they experienced. I only had to listen.

It would behoove us all to listen.

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