Some years ago I met an Argentine man who had been arrested during their ‘Dirty War’ in the 1970’s. His story is the most gripping testimony of the psychology of torture I’ve ever heard.
That evening he began hearing terrible screams coming from the other end of the cellblock. He soon realized that they were going from cell to cell torturing his compatriots, and were heading his way.
Nearly mad with fear, Alberto tried everything to calm himself, even turning to prayer, which he hadn’t done before. Nothing worked; nothing eased his terror and gave him the strength and courage to face what was coming.
The beatings, and whatever other crimes the military people were committing to elicit such gut-wrenching screams, went on and on into the night. The torture sessions were short but intense, designed apparently not to extract information but simply to punish and abuse.
The screams grew closer and closer, and Alberto’s terror increased with their proximity until he thought he couldn’t take it anymore. However as Shakespeare said, “The worst is not/ So long as we can say, ‘This is the worst.'” When Alberto was beyond such thoughts, he heard a clear and resonant voice in his head.
The voice simply and strongly said, “They are torturing you twice.” Alberto didn’t know then, nor did he know years later when he related the experience, where the voice came from, whether from inside or outside his head. It always seemed a distinction without a difference to him.
All that mattered was that the truth of the insight struck him with tremendous emotional force. His terror vanished, and the calmness of deep acceptance suddenly came over him.
Tossed on an unimaginably violent sea of imagination all night, it was as if he found himself washed up on a tranquil, sandy shore. His mind became clear and focused; his heart was steady, prepared for whatever was to come.
At dawn, some time later, the door opened, and there stood a twisted-faced, bedraggled brute with two underlings. Alberto, still feeling no fear, looked squarely into the eyes of the officer, and held them. With a firm voice, he asked, “Why are you doing this?” He said he was genuinely curious, and almost felt pity for the torturers.
The officer didn’t respond to his question, but rather to his fearlessness. “Do you know what we’re going to do to you?” he malevolently said. “You’re going to do what you’re going to do,” Alberto replied. “And you’re not afraid?” “No.”
With that, the torturers turned away, and slammed the door shut. Alberto was released a few days later.
Torture is a manifestation of pathological division, since the other person completely ceases to exist as a person like oneself. State torture represents a monumental failure of empathy combined with the most perverse adherence to patriotism and duty, focused through the power of the State.
Focusing on the political dimension of torture however, without examining its psychological roots, does not and cannot address the issue in the global society.
Avoiding the word ‘torture’ continues to be important in Republican circles in America, as if by not naming it we wouldn’t be actually engaging in it. Torture is a shameful activity, and there were complex mechanisms to insure that it wasn’t carried out on American shores, at least to my knowledge.
“Rendition” literally means “the act of returning.” Of course America was not returning criminals for prosecution, but rather using all means at its disposal to extract information, including turning over suspects to other governments in league with Washington, and employing torturers-for-hire at “black sites” using the latest “interrogation techniques.”
The Obama Administration has applied fig leaves of a different kind, and no one was ever held responsible for this abomination of the Bush-Cheney Administration. That’s one reason why America is only one major terror attack away from getting an even more evil administration than Bush-Cheney, in the form of Trump and/or Cruz.
As Kofi Annan has declared, and Alberto can attest: “Torture can never be an instrument to fight terror, for torture is an instrument of terror.”