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.