Torture a Few to Save Many?

Should the United States resort to torture in defending against terrorism? Suppose a man is in custody who knows where a bomb is ticking? The 9/11 attack has brought us to the unhappy point that both glib and responsible people are considering whether it may be appropriate to torture a suspect in order to save innocent people from great harm. The issue seems particularly pertinent for people who believe in peace, in nonviolent solutions, and in that of God in every torturer, victim, person who permits torture, and person who will die if the bomb goes off.

Last June 25-26, the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition International (TASSC) of Washington, D.C., held a conference, "On the Question of Torture: An Exchange of Views," at Catholic University of America to consider these troubling questions. The many sponsors and endorsers included the Washington and Middle Atlantic Regional offices of American Friends Service Committee. Altogether about 200 people attended, about 50 of them survivors of torture from around the world. It was my privilege to help out as a volunteer.

TASSC International came into being in 1998. Sister Dianna Ortiz, OSU, who was a missionary from the United States who survived torture in Guatemala in 1989, is its director. Orlando Tizon, who survived torture in the Philippines, is the assistant director. TASSC began as a project of the Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA (GHRC), and is now an independent organization.

According to Amnesty International, some 150 countries currently practice torture or ill-treatment of prisoners. Survivors are a minority, since torture kills most of its victims. Yet by conservative estimate, some 500,000 survivors live in this country alone. TASSC’s mission is "to end the practice of torture wherever it occurs," though Sister Dianna and the other speakers did not try to force this position upon the attendees.

TASSC also serves importantly as a mutual support group. Members representing 41 nations spent that week together. They nurtured each other in private. They lobbied public officials. Most of them have gotten to know each other at earlier TASSC gatherings. Their common experience of having been tortured, the pain they continue to endure, and their joy in each other’s company bind them together.

During each of the previous four years, TASSC held a 24-hour vigil in Lafayette Park opposite the White House on June 26, which is the day the United Nations has designated for international support for torture victims and survivors—which is ironic since a large majority of UN member nations practice torture. Following 9/11, however, such demonstrations have been banned. Since another vigil there was no longer possible, TASSC decided to have the conference instead.

Back in 1992, the GHRC put on another conference on torture. That was the first time that Sister Dianna had ever spoken in public about her ordeal. She was shaky, but powerful. The audience froze as she held up a razor blade and called it her special friend that promised the release she longed for from her nightmares, flashbacks, and pain. She has come a long way in the years since, thanks to her own determination and the help of people like Dr. Mary Fabri and many others. Two years ago, Dianna gave her razor blade away.

Dr. Fabri is the director of the Kovler Center for Survivors of Torture in Chicago. She became Dianna’s therapist and accompanied her on two devastating trips back to Guatemala in 1992 and 1993 to testify in court and retrace the route of her abduction. As Dianna did that, her mind plunged her back into being repeatedly raped and burned, beset by rats, and soaked in blood spurting from another woman, so that Dr. Fabri later said she actually saw Dianna undergoing torture. The Sunday before the conference Dr. Fabri took all the survivors who had arrived by then out to dinner. She says she likes to take the survivors out every year. Later she helped to lead the conference.

The program booklet included quotes that provoked thought and suggested how darkly the issue is already looming over us:

The truth is that many Americans’ safety today is in the hands of men willing to shoulder this burden [of torture]. They are not sadists or homicidal, are instead fulfilling a profound, if tragic, duty. —Matt Miller, Morning Edition, April 9, 2002

I remain a prisoner of history . . . wives witnessed the live dismemberment of their husbands. Fathers were . . . forced to rape their daughters and sons were forced to rape their mothers . . . men were crucified to doors. Children were decapitated while their mothers watched. —survivor from Bosnia

Torture is bad. . . . Keep in mind, some things are worse. And under certain circumstances, it may be the lesser of two evils. Because some evils are pretty evil. —Tucker Carlson, CNN, "Crossfire"

Will torture go away? No, it never will. It stays with you in your body and mind, forever. You may forget for an hour or a day, or two days, but it always comes back to you. It has become a part of you as long as you live. —survivor from Ethiopia

If you’ve got the ticking bomb case, the case of the terrorist who knew precisely where and when the bomb would go off, and it was the only way of saving 500 or 1,000 lives, each democratic society would, has, and will use torture. —Professor Alan Dershowitz, Jan. 20, 2002

But if a country’s . . . values rest on the dignity and human rights it guarantees, that country cannot permit torture, not even in extreme situations . . . a soldier or policeman who tortures other people in the name of his country is destroying that country, not protecting it. —Jurgen Moltmann, theologian

The ticking bomb case that Prof. Dershowitz cited is commonly used as a reason for legalizing torture, but experience in the real world teaches that where torture occurs, many thousands endure agony, yet few, if any, ticking bombs are defused. A survivor from Greece pointed out that torture is a tool, not for hearing the truth, but for hearing what the torturers want to hear. Most victims are tortured, not to obtain information, but to inflict gruesome deaths that exert social control and keep potential dissidents in line. And most torturers seem to feel they are doing a necessary and patriotic job for their country. At the time of the conference, the U.S. was not known to have tortured any terrorist suspects, though it had reportedly had some of them shipped to other countries to be tortured. A lawyer told the audience that this is just as criminal as performing the actual torture. I might add that it sounds like hiring a hit person to do your dirty work.

Ariel Dorfman, who is a Chilean poet, novelist, and playwright, gave the opening talk. "What times are these?" he asked, referring to the prevalence of torture. "What kind of a world do we live in?" He had supported the elected President of Chile, Salvador Allende, whom U.S.-backed General Augusto Pinochet violently overthrew in 1973, beginning a reign of terror that "disappeared," tortured, and killed thousands. Salvador Allende died in the coup; Ariel Dorfman was exiled.

Through the day, one survivor after another talked about torture or its effects. Some of those effects were evident in the room, as speakers wept, apologized for weeping, and continued their accounts. I was often close to tears. I knew, yet knew I could not know, the price they were paying to make their stories known. Some survivors listening to them buried their heads in their arms or left the auditorium. TASSC had thoughtfully provided two recovery rooms.

A journalist from Colombia related that after he was tortured in 1976, his partner, his friends, and all of his family except his mother rejected him. Twenty years later he was arrested for videotaping soldiers as they attacked some peaceful protesters. His son, 5, saw soldiers beating him on the TV news. Later they crushed one of his testicles and burst his liver; he was not expected to live. What caused him to weep, though, was telling us about the perplexity and pain that his arrest and torture caused his children. His daughter still cries easily and sleeps with the light on.

A woman wearing a striking blue dress and turban of her Ogoni people of Nigeria told how a major company has taken $30 billion worth of oil out of their land in recent decades, ruining the land, with great harm to the people who live on it. They have no electricity or running water and must pump any gas for their vehicles by hand. What price oil? Some 3,000 of her people have been killed, 20 villages have been razed, and more thousands have been disappeared or displaced, while the security forces enjoy impunity for these crimes. She, too, wept as she told of a commander who bragged that villagers may run but they cannot escape his men’s machine guns.

The statement of a Peruvian woman had to be read because the U.S. Embassy had denied her a visa. When the woman was 15, she saw the police arrest her brothers, who were 17 and 14. Then she and her mother had to identify their battered bodies, which were caked with blood and earth and wet with urine. They had been shot where the bullets would inflict pain but not death. Each was missing an eye. There was brain matter in their hair.

Wednesday began with a moving litany that featured candles, which are Dianna’s trademark. About 150 of them flickered in glass cups that had paper bands around them, each bearing the name of a country that practices torture or ill treatment of prisoners. The audience held the candles. A man and a woman on the podium took turns chanting the names of the countries while the man slapped out an urgent rhythm on a drum and people played flutes behind them. After each four or five names, the audience chanted, "We remember. . . ." When the name on your candle was chanted, you stood up, until eventually we were all standing. As a Quaker, I am somewhat detached from ritual, but this was strong. It took a long time. It gave me a new sense of how many people do unimaginable things to their own people—to our own people, since Amnesty International has placed the United States on the list.

More survivors spoke. So did Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.). Every member of Congress had been invited. Two sent statements, which were read, but he was the only one who showed up. When he mentioned the problems caused by U.S. "exceptionalism and individualism," the audience clapped. Looking taken aback, he said he hadn’t expected that to be an applause line.

The survivors presented a statement of their concerns about torture and ways to oppose it. As the afternoon passed, more and more survivors asked for and were given the microphone to read poems that the conference itself had moved them to write. It was an inspired response, a fitting cap for an intense two days.

In October 2002, Orbis Books published Dianna’s memoir, The Blindfold’s Eyes: My Journey from Torture to Truth. The book is an unflinching account of what it’s like to survive torture—her guilt, distrust, ghosts and demons that haunted her days and destroyed her nights, her recurring urge to seek peace in death. Yet the book, like the conference, is ultimately uplifting. Dianna, like the other survivors who spoke, has persevered. She has expanded her ministry from teaching Mayan children in a remote hamlet to leading a quest to end torture "wherever it occurs."

The enormous importance of TASSC International and its mission came home to me during this powerful conference. Survivors of torture speak with unique authority. As our government considers legalizing torture, their voices must be heard. Scattered around alone, they are like sticks unheeded and easily broken (though Dianna wasn’t). But bound together by TASSC, they constitute a significant force, a stout girder in a bridge to a torture-free world. (For more about TASSC, see

And what of people who respect that of God in every person and espouse non-violent solutions? Will Quakers form another girder in that bridge? It is said that one’s idealism varies inversely with one’s distance from the problem. The answer to the question of torture may be clearer in principle than in practice, as the answer has been for the war against terrorism—the war that spawned this question about torture in the first place.

Since Scott Simon’s article in Friends Journal (Dec. 2001) in support of that war inspired many comments from readers, I thought it would be of interest to ask him what he thinks about using torture. He replied, "I do not believe that torture is justified. My objection is not just moral. I think there is a great deal of practical evidence . . . that evidence obtained by torture cannot be trusted. . . . In fact, [a suicide bomber] may welcome the opportunity to misinform." He went on, though, to add a caution: "If someone was captured who possessed information that could save the life of my wife or children (or for that matter Dianna Ortiz), and they refused to divulge that information while a bomb ticked away, I would be tempted to want to torture that gangster myself, rather than stay faithful to my beliefs. Anyone who is certain that their convictions would be undimmed in that situation is, I think, just not being honest with themselves."

The news since the June conference has borne out the participants’ fears. On December 26, 2002, the Washington Post reported that American Special Forces and the CIA have tortured al-Qaida and Taliban prisoners held abroad—beating them up, confining them in tiny rooms, blindfolding them and throwing them into walls, tying them up in painful positions, gagging them and binding them to stretchers with duct tape, and depriving them of sleep—or turned them over to countries like Egypt, Morocco, and Jordan for more brutal tortures. Some U.S. officials expressed confidence that the U.S. public would agree with them that these measures are just and necessary. Though this news report seems well authenticated, it has passed almost unnoticed. It has also been reported that after U.S. citizen John Walker Lindh was captured in Afghanistan among the Taliban in December 2001, he was taped to a stretcher at times and was kept cold, hungry, sleep-deprived, and in total darkness in a steel shipping container.

The debate over torture heated up with the capture of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, an alleged al-Qaida mastermind, in Pakistan on March 1. The CIA took him to another country where, according to a report in the New York Times on March 4, it used "every means at its disposal, short of what it considers outright torture, to try to crack him." It has not been disclosed what means the CIA considers to meet this criterion, or whether nationals of another country applied other means during the interrogation.

If and when terrorists strike again, the question of whether our government will legalize torture and approve even more extensive use of it seems certain to grow more pressing. The question seems likely to challenge Quakers, as it will challenge others. It is not too soon to consider the question earnestly and prayerfully.
© 2003 Malcolm Bell

Malcolm Bell

Malcolm Bell, a member of Wilderness Meeting in Wallingford, Vt., is secretary of the International Mayan League/USA. He has written a book, The Turkey Shoot: Tracking the Attica Cover-Up, published in 1985.