Faith Paulsen's Blog

Faith Paulsen

Faith Paulsen
Location
Norristown, Pennsylvania, USA
Birthday
December 27
Bio
Writer. No relation to Henry Paulson or Gary Paulsen or Pat Paulsen.

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Salon.com
APRIL 24, 2009 10:53PM

My 30-Year Learning Curve on the Torture Issue

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Amnesty International logo  

 

If I’d only known then what I know now – would I have been so idealistic?

 

I’d thought I was educated. But until that moment, I had no idea that torture still took place in the world.

 

It was in the early 1980s.  I was watching a segment on “60 Minutes” about human rights.  Now, nearly 30 years later, I don’t remember a lot of the details, but I’ll never forget the faces.  From my little TV screen in my very first apartment, former Prisoners of Conscience from other continents, Asia, Africa and South America, their eyes downcast, shared stories, as I stared at my TV in disbelief. 

 

I was in my 20s then.  I knew I’d lived a sheltered life as a young white middle-class American woman.  But I’d read The Diary of Ann Frank and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, I’d been to college, I read the newspaper and listened to NPR. 

 

And yet this took my breath away.  These people had been imprisoned by their own governments, solely because of their non-violently-held beliefs, their political views, religion, ethnic group or gender.  

 

Unable to pry myself away, I heard the details.  Kidnapped, disappeared, arrested, held incommunicado for years, starved, beaten, tortured.  To me then, it sounded like something from the Spanish Inquisition.  Surely this kind of behavior ended with the Nazis, or at least with the death of Stalin.  I was outraged.

 

 And then the reporter recounted how Amnesty International was founded in 1961. British lawyer Peter Benenson heard about the imprisonment of two Portuguese students, who were arrested simply -- because they had raised their wine glasses in a toast to freedom.   Benenson launched a worldwide campaign, ‘Appeal for Amnesty 1961’ with the publication of his prominent article, ‘The Forgotten Prisoners,’ in The Observer.  His appeal was later reprinted in other papers across the world and turned out to be the genesis of Amnesty International.  

 

I suppose I was simple then, so the simplicity of Benenson’s idea struck me.  That public attention makes a difference.  That strangers from around the world could write letters to these governments.  That human rights abusers hate the sunlight, that even the most brutal government cares about its image.

 

And the evidence was inspiring.  The former prisoners on my TV set reported their experiences -- Letters written on behalf of Prisoners of Conscience changed -- maybe even saved -- their lives.

 

That “60 Minutes” segment inspired me and my then-boyfriend to get involved in Amnesty International.  To me, this was what we’d now call a no-brainer, non-controversial, the good guys vs. the bad guys, Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader.  I mean, who in their right mind would defend torture?

 

Today, you can go to www.amnestyinternational.org and send emails and letters to officials all over the world, all from your home computer.  But back in those pre-internet days, Amnesty International was run differently.  Local chapters such as ours, which was based in Philadelphia, met monthly in local churches and libraries to coordinate campaigns and events.  We organized concerts, write-a-thons, petition campaigns and lectures.  Information, materials and ideas were disseminated from the National Office in New York and the International Office in London.  We had regional coordinators, but the work itself was very much grass-roots. 

 

 Filled with outrage and inspiration, I threw myself into volunteer work for Amnesty.  Eventually I became co-chair of the Philadelphia Chapter. 

In 1984, Amnesty International launched the second Campaign Against Torture, which included a 12-point plan for the abolition of torture.   A key point was bringing the facts to public attention.   My group received its shipment of Amnesty’s Report on Torture.  I thumbed through the report, gaping in disbelief at what human beings are capable of doing to others. 

The report taught me that most nations that use torture were well-aware that torture did not produce reliable information; that was not why they used it.  Torture was an instrument of degradation, not information-gathering. 

We also received a tape of a documentary film called “Your Neighbor’s Son.”  This documentary dramatizes the training of young men recruited into the Greek police force during the military junta that was in power 1967-1974.  I don’t know if it’s even available anymore, but at that time, it opened my mind in new ways. The video amazed me.  Watching “Your Neighbor’s Son,” I found out that the torturer is as human as the victim of torture.   I learned how a torturer is born.  He is created by a process of abuse and humiliation – In short, it is abuse itself that turns a normal young man, your neighbor’s son, into someone who is capable of torture. 

  Hurt people hurt people. 

On June 26, 1987 – my oldest son’s 2nd birthday – four years after it was adopted by the UN, after it had already been ratified by 20 nations, the United States became the 63d nation to sign the International Convention Against Torture.  Although it was shamefully belated, I thought things had changed – I felt a sense of accomplishment -- I felt I’d been a part of something important. That son is 23 now. 

And now, here we are in 2009.  I can’t believe it but I now know my own government – the U.S. government – has used torture.  They claim they were trying to get information that might have saved lives, but there is evidence they were trying to obtain false evidence to gin up the argument for war in Iraq. Whatever their objective, it was wrong.  The U.S. has turned into “Your Neighbor’s Son.” 

 I thought I was educated when I was 20, but I learned that contrary to my beliefs, torture still took place.  Then, I thought no human being could commit an act of torture but a few years later, I learned how people could be taught through abuse to commit abuses.

 

But I never thought that in the 21st century my own government would be capable of committing such acts.

 

Once again, I realize, I was less educated than I thought.

 

In an Op-Ed piece in the Washington Post in September 2006, Ariel Dorfman said:

“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?”

 

Well, I literally DID march in the streets, and yet I still did not really see what I should have seen, did not believe that any President of the United States would allow such actions in my name.

 

Thirty years after I first began to learn about torture -- I am ashamed.

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Comments

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Any resemblance between the former Vice President and the "Darth Vader" mentioned in this piece is purely coincidental.
Behind Blue Eyes, that's an important point. I guess as a young person (then) I thought of Vietnam as some kind of aberration. I am older now -- in a lot of ways.
Thank you Faith. You know, people often thank military personnel for their service, often just from seeing them in uniform. I think mostly it's polite, and sincere, and heartfelt expressions of gratitude unless it's done loudly for political reasons, with a need to garner attention to the one giving thanks.

I think what you've done with your association with AI is worthy of my gratitude and thanks. Your service on behalf of mankind, not just one nation, not just for our own nation, is something to be honored and treasured.

So, thank you.
I am so glad that you posted this. I am proud of your hands on involvement with Amnesty Intl. BBE posted a link to the AI web site and I went out and sent emails to my congressman, senators and the President. It was a small act, as are BBE's and mine and several others here, and now you, when we write our posts on this subject. But the more of us who write the better.

Monte
Thanks for this great post, Faith. I hope the feeling of shame will collectively cause us to do something about this dreadful situation--not just pay lip service.
Excellent post. Hats off to you and the work you've done. I think many of us have been taken aback over what has been done in our names.
This should be an EP and on the cover.
MJWycha, Julie, Hells Bells, Monte and BBD, thank you so much for your kind comments!
Both heart felt and so right on about this evolution of torture that for many is just now coming to light. It is about us, our heart and soul as a nation, as you point out so well.
Just Cathy, I agree. I believe that if we as a nation allow torture to be performed in our name, we lose, as you say, our heart and soul.
You walked the walk, Faith. I had missed this, but came over when you just commented on my take on the torture problem. I'm so impressed with your work and your writing on this. Thank you.
Thanks, Lea. I'm glad your great post on a similar topic is getting attention.
It is very telling that those who advocate torture would never recommend it for themselves, their friends or family members. They assume it couldn't happen to them. That's the whole point of human rights. We protect EVERYONE, not just those with whom we agree, or those who are on our team. Thanks!
David, thanks for reading my piece. You make a good point. But even the American SERE trainees who were willingly waterboarded as part of their training KNEW they were in the hands of their peers, knew they were not in fact drowning, and they had signed up for the job. So while most SERE trainees don't show ill effects of the procedure, we can't compare their experience to that of detainees, who are being held by people from another (powerful) nation, who don't share their language, religion or culture, and who they've been taught not to trust.
As you rightly point out, they became what they beheld, and as Santayana observed those who do not learn from the past our condemned to repeat it.

Our ignorance -- some of which is deliberate -- of our own history as a nation prevents us from understanding that since before this was a nation, we have condoned practices which should be rightly viewed as torture . Treating some human beings as livestock is torture, and to our everlasting shame this abhorrent practice was written into our Constitution with the three-fifths rule, and we had to pay for that evil with the blood or half-a-million soldiers and the ravaging of half-the-nation.

Our treatment of Native Americans was equally shameful. In our lust to fulfill our "manifest destiny", we engaged in the forced relocation of the native peoples of the the Southeast; and in the West, we engaged in "ethnic cleansing" and attempted the eradication of whole tribes thru murder or starvation by wantonly killing off the buffalo that was their primary food supply.

We are not taught that it was General Sherman who popularized the phrase "the only good Indian is a dead one", nor that he proposed "The Final Solution" to "the Indian Problem", nor that Hitler studied our method of dealing with Native Americans and applied it to the Jews.

There is no joy in knowing these things, and there ought not to be. Nor is there any joy in reminding people of these things. But I speak of them because most people were never taught about them, because some refuse to acknowledge them, because some refuse to believe them.

Most Americans are too fond of our self-aggrandizing mythology, and they do not understand that torture and crimes against humanity have happened here and will happen here again unless good people speak out and stand up against these things.