If Torture Isn’t News, What Does That Say?

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published December 18, 2008, issue of December 26, 2008.
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On December 10, 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. So just the other day, the declaration’s 60th anniversary was celebrated. It may well have escaped your attention; though people engaged in human rights work marked the occasion, the anniversary flew in, then out, below most people’s radar.

And why lament that? We all know, do we not, of the ongoing violations of human rights in many, many places around the world — in Sudan and Congo, in Russia and North Korea, in China and Somalia, and on and on? Who among us needs to be reminded, who among us does not already advocate the ever-fuller implementation of the great blessing we call “human rights”?

A cheer for irony: On December 11, one day after the declaration’s anniversary, Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin and ranking member John McCain released the executive summary and conclusions of the committee’s report of its inquiry into the treatment of detainees in U.S. custody. And the findings of that report state explicitly that top Bush administration officials, including Donald Rumsfeld, the former defense secretary, bear major responsibility for the abuses committed by American troops in interrogations at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, at Guantanamo Bay and in other U.S. military detention centers. The report is the most thorough review by Congress to date of the origins of the abuse of prisoners in American military custody; it explicitly rejects the Bush administration’s contention that tough interrogation methods have helped keep the country and its troops safe. According to The New York Times, the “report also rejected previous claims by Mr. Rumsfeld and others that Defense Department policies played no role in the harsh treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in late 2003 and in other episodes of abuse. The abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, the report says, ‘was not simply the result of a few soldiers acting on their own’ but grew out of interrogation policies approved by Mr. Rumsfeld and other top officials, who ‘conveyed the message that physical pressures and degradation were appropriate treatment for detainees.’”

This will, perhaps, strike most readers as old news, the irony of the coincidence of dates — the anniversary, the report — aside. After all, have we not known all along, from earlier leaks, from surmise, from informed hunch — that the Justice Department, the Pentagon and even the White House knew and approved the violation of Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which reads, in its entirety, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”? (A violation, as well, of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, to which the United States is a signatory.)

But to say that the Levin-McCain report does not tell us anything we did not know is mistaken: Within the human rights community, it has been a bombshell, one that may well lead to an exhaustive inquiry and perhaps even to prosecutions. Besides, if we knew, roughly, the truth, that raises the most disturbing question of all: If, in fact, we knew, how did it happen? Where were the protests? Where was the outrage? Had there been commensurate protests, might the courts have been less complicit? Why, in short, the silence?

At this point, there will likely be some readers who will say, “That’s an interesting question, but why raise it in a Jewish newspaper? In what relevant sense is it ‘a Jewish issue?’”

This next will seem at first blush a digression; please bear with me.

It is sometimes suggested that we, survivors one way or the other of the Holocaust, have been dangerously obsessed with it. Indeed, there is some truth to that, especially in the behavior of some of our community’s institutions. But: We are, most of us, familiar with the concept of a phantom limb — the sensation that an amputated or missing limb is still attached to the body. Approximately 50% to 80% of individuals with an amputation experience phantom sensations in their amputated limb; most such sensations are painful. Phantom limb pain is usually intermittent; it is also generally intractable and chronic. Once it develops it persists and is rarely improved by current medical treatments. Surgical procedures can be effective for a few months, but pain always returns, frequently worse, and so surgery is only performed in patients with terminal illness.

I propose here that we regard the six million as our phantom limb. It is by no means the whole of the truth about us, but it is an intractable truth, one that has irretrievably chosen us for pain and disorientation, yet also one with which we choose to live, the awesome and awful memory both given and chosen.

If we are alive to that truth, how can we be deaf to the victims of torture, whoever they are? How can we live with our own pain and be indifferent to theirs? Has our amputated limb folded us into a cocoon or has it commanded us to compassion?

We want, we say, that the world will remember, and our own children, too. Is not vehement opposition to torture committed in our name by our government not, then, a necessary act of memory? We remember and carry the pain because others chose silence. What more do we need to know than that?


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