Torture and Political Alienation
There are times when the general political discourse just sails right by me. The perspective of living with the torture issue, and assisting torture survivors, transfers the day-by-day fray of partisan politics into a gray zone inhabited by half-sensible humans, whose actions and passions seem unreal. The following testimonies are what seem real to me, taken from the testimonies gathered by the good folk at the Refugee Media Project, who are producing a video documentary on immigrant survivors of torture who have settled in the United States:
R. had been imprisoned and tortured by Uganda’s Idi Amin. “When you’re thrown in military detention,” he says, “you are there to be killed. They did a lot of bad things, a lot of castration. They cut people up and all kinds of stuff. Those still alive – your job was to clean it up.”
C. was a pediatrician and a softball player – on her national team in Guatemala: “On my way to a game I was intercepted by a couple of cars. They crashed my car from the back and stopped me with guns…. “They had broken a couple of my ribs, and had kept me with handcuffs the entire time, but they didn’t touch my face. They beat me in my thighs – my thighs were by then the color of eggplant, but they were very careful not to beat me in the parts that could be visible.”
A. was only eighteen when he was arrested in his west African country. “I was tortured, you know. Sometimes they make you stand for hours. Beatings…I went through all that. They tried to get information that I don’t even know. It’s like telling somebody to find a nail in the ocean, because you don’t know what they are talking about. Do I have to lie? Sometimes, yes, you have to lie, just for them to stop the pain.”
S. was betrayed by a friend who had invited him for tea…. It was three years and two months that I was in prison, and it was solitary confinement for three whole years…. They just kept me isolated and they wouldn’t let me sing or say anything. If I said anything they would come and threaten physical punishment. So it was not that bad compared to what happened to other people; it was not that bad… I say it was not bad, but it ruined me. It ruined me in many ways. It disabled me.”
What a contradiction that the same country that takes in torture survivors more than any other, the United States, should also run their own torture prisons. (Certainly, too, I could have gathered stories from within the prisons and jails inside the United States, where the most cruel conditions often prevail, from beatings and killings to soul-crushing solitary confinement.) The following is from the 2005 testimony of Shaker Aamer, a Saudi-born British resident who was cleared for release from Guantanamo two years ago, but the United States refuses to release to British custody, most likely because he acted as a moral leader among the detainees, and refused to turn informer. . . .
I am dying here every day, mentally and physically. This is happening to all of us. We have been ignored, locked up in the middle of the ocean for many years…I have problems many problems from the filthy yellow water…I have lung problems from the chemicals they spread all over the floor…I am already arthritic at 40 because I sleep on a steel bed, and they use freezing air conditioning as part of the interrogation process. I have ruined eyes from the permanent, 24-hour fluorescent lights. I have tinnitus in my ears from the perpetual noise…I have ulcers and almost permanent constipation from the food. I have been made paranoid, so I can trust nobody, not even my lawyer. I was over 250 lbs. I dropped to 130lbs in the hunger strike. I want to make it easy on everyone, I want no feeding, no forced tubes, no ‘help’, no ‘intensive assisted feeding.’
Today, while researching an article I’m writing for Truthout, which I’m writing with the journalist Jason Leopold — we’re going to publish an exclusive investigatory report in a few days on the use of a particularly harmful drug on the detainees at Guantanamo — I noticed that the SOP for the Behavioral Science Consultation Teams (BSCTs) at Bagram included the following sentence, as it described the BSCTs’ duties: “BSCs can assist in ensuring that everything that a detainee sees, hears, and experiences is a part of the overall interrogation plan.”
Such a totalistic environment is constructed by two psychologists and two psych techs, the members of the BSCT team (psychiatrists having opted out some years back, when their professional association wouldn’t allow them to participate). It is purely evil the way that psychological and medical knowledge is put to use for such destructive ends. The BSCTs supposedly ensure safety for the detainees, but eight years of revelations shows that to be a complete lie.
I became involved in writing about torture because of the shame and anger I felt, as a psychologist, at seeing the field and work I loved, to which I had dedicated a large portion of my life, and around which I had formed a crucial piece of self-identity, deformed and utilized for inhumanity and military-political gain.
Unbeknown to much of the country, there has grown in recent years a huge network of torture treatment centers, assisting survivors with their medical and psychological needs, while also helping, when they can, with the onerous asylum process in this country. (See list of such agencies here.) Such work is satisfying to those who do it, and necessary. I do some of this work myself. But we, as a country, cannot be satisfied with this. Already the torture virus eats through every social institution it touches, debasing ordinary human discourse and means of association, brutalizing some and defeating others.
The Obama administration has been shown to be lying about torture, but nothing is done. The Democratic Party-led Congress showed itself morally bankrupt in more ways than one, done in by political opportunism and accomodationism, by its adherence to the war aims of the Bush-Cheney clique and the manifold military, scientific, healthcare, and industrial interests that grow rich off the “war on terror” and its various campaigns. The Democrats share rule with the awful GOP in Congress, tolerated only because the populace sees no other alternative, as political discussion in this country is limited to discourse between these two bankrupt political parties. I cannot engage in that kabuki, though I understand it.
The voices of the tortured keep speaking to me. They will not be quieted. They will continuing speaking long after I am old and gone. Will they be heard, or buried again in a spiritual dungeon built out of human indifference, ignorance, and fear?