'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.
In this country, there are an estimated 500,000 torture survivors. They're your taxicab driver, your co-worker, your doctor, your priest.
If we listened to them, we would understand that torture isn't just wrong—and I believe strongly that it is wrong—but it also doesn't work. We would understand, as survivors told me, that when you're being tortured, you'll say whatever it takes to make the pain go away. Name names. Make up stuff. Anything to make it stop.
"Everyone underestimates their breaking point," the one-time Palestinian actor told me. "I thought I was such a coward, and it turned out that I was a little bit better than I expected. Still, I did beg shamelessly for the beatings to stop . . . Like a poor beggar."
For some, like the Angolan child soldier, there are physical scars, evidence of beatings and burnings. For virtually all of them, there are the internal ones, clinical depression, agoraphobia, post-traumatic stress. "The ego is destroyed," a Congolese survivor told me. "You've got to try to build a new life. How is a person changed? That is the key question. Because sometimes a person doesn't know when there was the break, the passing from one side to another."
I remember sitting for hours with a Latin American psychiatrist who'd been tortured horribly as a university student in her home country. Now, middle-aged, she was trying to start over in a new country. Only to find out that her torturer had moved to her new neighborhood, too. Now she was afraid to leave her house. She told me her story, willingly. I cried as she told it to me. Later, spiraling into panic and paranoia, she called me back to withdraw her story, accusing me of being out to get her. "I know what you're trying to do," she told me in Spanish, "and I'm not having it."
Sometimes, spending time with torture survivors is an exercise in frustration. They were placed in a situation where they had no control over their experience. And so they seek to control. Someone asking questions can cause them to relive the trauma. But they tell their stories because they want torture to stop, and they want it to stop now. For torture survivors, there will always be feelings of cowardice and outrage, of what ifs and why mes. Many struggle to maintain relationships. Among those who experience torture at an early age, many will never have a romantic relationship. Torture kills trust.
So let's be clear on torture; it is not effective; it is not some sexy scene from 24; it is not practiced solely on the deserving bad guy or the noble war hero. It is practiced by the governments of over 150 countries in the world, including, I am sad to say, very recently, our own.
Teresa Wiltz is The Root’s senior culture writer.