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Meditations: A Tale of Torture

Meditations - From Martin LeFevre in California

A Tale of Torture

Some years ago I met an Argentine man who had been arrested during the 'Dirty War' in the 1970's and was slated to be tortured. His story is the most graphic example of the wrongful use of thought, as well as the potential for transcending thought, that I've ever heard.

Alberto had been picked up in a sweep of students and was placed, alone, in a small cell, along a block of cells that held other students like him.

That evening he began hearing terrible screams coming from the other end of the cellblock. As the horrible cries grew closer, he realized, to his indescribable horror, that they were going from cell to cell torturing prisoners.

Nearly mad with fear, Alberto tried everything to calm himself, even turning to prayer, which he never did. Nothing worked, nothing eased his terror and gave him the strength and courage to face what was coming.

The beatings, and whatever else the military people were doing to elicit such gut-wrenching screams, went on and on into the night. The torture sessions were brief 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 felt he couldn't take it anymore. But as Shakespeare said, "the worst is not/ So long as we can say, 'This is the worst.'" When Alberto was beyond that point, he heard a clear and resonant voice.

The voice simply said, "They are torturing you twice." He 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 (which in the end seemed a distinction without a difference).

The truth of the pronouncement struck him with physical force, and the calm that had eluded him all night suddenly descended over him. Tossed on an unimaginably violent sea all night, it was as if he abruptly found himself washed up on shore, with the surf lapping over his legs.

His mind became clear and focused; his heart was prepared for whatever was to come.

The door opened, and there stood a twisted-faced, bedraggled officer with two underlings. Alberto, feeling no fear now, looked squarely into the eyes of the brute, and, with a firm voice, said, "Why are you doing this?" He almost felt pity for the torturers, and was genuinely curious.

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 said. "You're going to do what you're going to do," Alberto replied. "And you're not afraid?" "No."

With that, the man turned away, the door was slammed shut, and they left. Alberto was released some days later.

None of us can know how we would react or respond in such a situation, or under the less overtly brutal but covertly more diabolical techniques practiced for decades by the CIA. (Not to mention the training programs, and torture/execution by proxy that America has exported through such 'schools' as the "School of the Americas," which the Argentinean horrors exemplified.)

A few days ago, Kofi Annan declared in his annual Human Rights Day message "Let us be clear: torture can never be an instrument to fight terror, for torture is an instrument of terror."

Getting around the word 'torture' used to be important to America, but the in-your-face-with-smiley-face foreign policy of the Bush Administration merely seeks to supply fig leaves to other governments, and no longer even tries to obtain plausible denials for Washington.

"Rendition" literally means "the act of returning." Of course America is not returning criminals for prosecution, but rather using all means to extract information, including turning over suspects to other governments (which Washington oversees), and employing torturers-for-hire at 'black sites' using the latest 'interrogation techniques.'

Even so, focusing on the political dimension of torture, without examining its psychological basis, does not begin to address the issue. Indeed, America's unprecedented power makes it a convenient focal point, thereby giving cover to a vast torture network in the global society supervised from Washington. Thus the fulcrum ‹the USA ‹becomes the issue, diverting attention from torture itself in all its forms.

State torture represents a monumental failure of empathy combined with a perverse adherence to patriotism and duty. Torture is a manifestation of extreme psychological division and alienation --the other utterly ceases to exist as a person like oneself. It also provides a depraved catharsis, out of a sick connection with the victim, and a quasi-sexual release for the torturer.

Clearly, the aims and purposes of the emerging World State are not the same as the aims and purposes of its agents carrying out its mandates. But it is here, at this nebulous nexus, that we must address torture, not through the obsolete conceptual frameworks of particular nations and their policies.


Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He has been publishing in North America, Latin America, Africa, and Europe (and now New Zealand) for 20 years. Email: The author welcomes comments.

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