Hollow Comfort – Honoring Victims of Torture

Today, June 26, is the day set aside by the UN as an International Day of Support of Victims of Torture. Support is offered through care, recognition and celebration of the over 200 recovery and rehabilitation centers for torture victims around the world. Prayers and meditations are offered for the continuing health and healing of survivors. Silence is dedicated in the honor and memory of those who were tortured and died.

On this day, out of respect, regard and in honor of all who have suffered, the goal is not to generate mass protests against countries that still use torture or advocate for legal justice – that comes later. On this day, the focus is kept on the victims, those who have suffered the unspeakable. Victims that, although we may advocate because of them, are often forgotten by the very groups that pledge to defend and support them. Their stories becoming small bits of emotional play thrown into a larger and more distant grand drama.

It is easy, in the pursuit of justice, to lose touch with the reality of those who have suffered injustice.

Keeping the focus on the victims, keeping in touch with the reality of injustice, means more than retelling the details of what has happened to someone. The reality of injustice goes beyond the moments in which it occurred and lingers and changes the entire life of the individual. Learning to comprehend and embrace the totality of the experience of someone who has been tortured requires more than an imagining or recounting of their wounds and suffering during the time of torture -it means coming to understand who they were before, what happened when, and who they are becoming now.

Support can only be offered in a holistic sense, when the totality of the person is held and understood. Justice and advocacy that draws from a holistic understanding will lead to holistic and effective change. Change that is only spurred on from one aspect of experience will be as limited in its effectiveness as the limits of the understanding of the experience it came from.

Viktor Frankl said, “Since Auschwitz, we know what man is capable of and since Hiroshima, we know what is at stake.” The International Declaration of Human Rights, which prohibits torture under Article 5, was formulated by the United Nations in response to the horrors of World War II. Member nations recognized that there was a need to state, on an international level, a standard of human rights and protection that applied at all times, in all circumstances and to all peoples. While we have come to see the United Nations as a separate entity than the countries who are members of it, the U.N. is a collaborative voice of its participants. It is not a perfect voice. It is a democratic voice and democracy is an institution that is incapable of perfect representation and perfect justice, but it is an institution that is capable of righting itself through self-examination and address of its flaws.

When the U.N. assembles a treaty, covenant or declaration countries sign these documents as indication of their willingness to be governed by an international set of standards. However, signing the document does not mean the nation is bound by its rules. Each country must then ratify the document at home for it to be considered legally binding. And all countries may amend their ratified signatures. In the case of torture, for example, the USA has signed and ratified the agreement. Then in 1994, the USA amended the ratification to state that it only applied to the USA as far as it did not contradict the country’s constitution and the definition of contradiction was left solely to the discretion of the current administration of the USA. The USA is not the only country that has used this kind of loophole to sign treaties and covenants and then recuse themselves from their application.

The problem with justice of any kind is it requires injustice to happen for it to come into play. And injustice, like evil, is in the eye of the beholder. That eye, is usually the current and most prominent social/cultural trend. The interpretation of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights in the US is caught between the debate as to whether it was based in an eternal and unchanging sense of human decency, or one that evolves as society evolves. In other words, does the meaning of “cruel and unusual” change as our perceptions and social tolerance changes? Or is there one point, one boundary that outlines a set of behaviors and sets them aside as cruel and unusual under any circumstances?

Victims of torture suffer not just acts of torture from specific people executing the orders of a certain regime or administration; they suffer from modern society’s emotional and qualitative disconnection from the reality of human life. If, in any part of the world, torture occurs, it is not the acting party that bears the sole responsibility for committing injustice – but all of us. Even the advocates. Even those who make it their life mission to struggle to end the acceptance of torture as a means of protecting national security or to aid investigation. How can this be? Because we, as a global community and individuals, have come to devalue humanity. The idea that we are good or bad or act in good or bad ways has risen in social prominence to the point that we do not recognize that at all times we possess both. It is through this awareness that we are then enabled to correct our behaviors, choose self-control and examine our means and motivations for validity. When someone is tortured, every person who is not, both suffers with them and commits the crime.

Just as when someone is homeless, every person who is not suffers with them and holds them from security as well.

This is not a judgment as much as a statement of the modern reality of duality. While we can choose to help, it is rare for us to choose the kind of complete sacrifice that would raise a person out of injustice because in choosing to help, we choose to stop before we, ourselves, exchange places with them. That is the most immediate and realistic resolution to another person’s problem. In choosing not to perpetuate the problem by exchanging situations, we maintain the existence of the problem by not going far enough to solve it.

This catch-22 is not a natural condition but one that has come to be accepted socially as human society has evolved. It is based in the total acceptance of the morality of materialism. By materialism, I am not talking about the ownership of things – but the perception that our life is defined by what we have – what we have experienced, what we have read, what we consume in feeding our beliefs, security, loves and status. We are moved to justice and empathy by perceiving someone as being deprived of having things. Our goal then is to return the right of ownership to them. The definition of life is then rooted in the material. Our understanding and acceptance that life is something that one does not have, but that one is – one is living, one lives, one is alive – disappears. We fail to see that evil comes not in depriving someone of what they have, but of depriving someone of what they are – alive. Life is the universal morality and the eternal standard, not the things we place around and in it to “show” we are living – to ourselves and others – that is a standard that changes according to whim and trend.

Often, we offer as comfort to those who have suffered that, “they should be thankful they are at least still alive” but these are words of hollow comfort for they are inauthentic and insincere when spoken by people who no longer understand what it is to be alive.

To be alive one must understand that what we have come to accept as “human nature” is not natural, but is a reaction of human nature to the demands of society. Our reality is appropriated and not experienced, as Marx puts forth. We only understand and value life and its elements in as far as we can find a use for them in relation to the demands of our societies. Human nature, as Fromm states, is an essence and not a substance. It is a constellation rather than one thing or another.

To understand and offer support to someone who has been a victim of torture we must come to a place in which we recognize that the essence of their humanity is unchanged, but that their relation to society has been deeply damaged. And, that it is society that allowed them to be tortured. It is only through being able to bear both the guilt and the empathy that we can honor and respect their life and begin to see alternatives to governing our worlds.

The following is a passage from a lecture that Erich Fromm delivered in 1962 in Sherwood Hall at La Jolla, California. You can find the entire lecture and others by him in the collection, On Being Human (Fromm, Continuum Publishing, 1994).
“Terence expressed it (when he said) ‘Nothing human is alien to me;’ that I carry within myself all of humanity; that, in spite of the fact that there are no two individuals who are the same, the paradox exists that we all share in the same substance, in the same quality; that nothing which exists in any human being does not exist in myself. I am the criminal and I am the saint. I am the child and I am the adult. I am the man who lived a hundred thousand years ago and I am the man who, provided we don’t destroy the human race, will live a hundred thousand years from now.

This proposition has a very significant connection with one phenomenon with which it is usually not connection, namely the phenomenon of the unconscious. (Firstly) what is our consciousness? Our consciousness is all those human experiences of which our particular society allows us to be aware…we are aware only of that which our language, our logic, and the taboos of our societies permit us to be aware. There is, you might say, something like a “social filter,” and only those experiences that can pass through that social filter are the things we are aware of; they are our consciousness.

And what is our unconscious? Our unconscious is humanity. Our unconscious is the universal man. Our unconscious is all that is human – the good and the bad – all that exists in everybody, minus that small sector that is conscious, which represents the experience, thinking, feeling of the culture that we are thrown into rather accidently (…) If we are in touch with our unconscious, then indeed, we experience ourselves as we experience everybody else. Indeed, we overcome that separation within ourselves in which we are aware only of that which is expressed in our particular tribe or culture, and we get in touch with that which we share with all humanity.”

We can best honor those who have suffered by choosing life. Choosing life means to choose to accept that within each of us, all exists. And with that knowledge to make reasoned choices based upon a universal sense of life and being rather than one rooted in the limited experience of a life defined by culture and society, in having. In accepting that we are inextricably woven together, we share the realities of the human existence. We are the tortured and the torturers. By coming to understand that, we can prevent torture on any level from being acceptable in any circumstance. By seeing all the possibilities and potential for our choices and experiencing their effect imaginatively, we will discover alternatives that serve to bring us together into unity. Where the life that is valued is not seen as divided into individual bodies, but the life of the one unified essence of humanity.

Peace be with you, and peace go with you in all you do today.

c.2011. Cassandra Tribe. Written for Blue Skies on http://WomansMojoRisings.com. This article is available for use via Creative Commons licensing with attribution.

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About cassandratribe

"There are few artists that can do what Cassandra Tribe does. Whether with her poetry, her videos or her blog, Cassandra examines the truths that most of us can never come close to realizing and shows it for what it is, both beautiful and frightening at the same time. She exposes our inner-most workings like the cross-section of a powerful but flawed machine, our gears and springs, nuts and bolts removed and laid out before us. She is a true artist. Her new video, Requiem for a God, is the latest example of Cassandra's willingness to tear open and examine the very things that make us human. Shooting the film entirely by herself, she also eliminates all the little excuses we come up with to keep us from ourselves and our truth. You see, even when she's not trying to be, Cassandra Tribe is a beacon of truth and humanity in this darkest of worlds." (Michael E. Quigg, The Culture Network, June 2009)
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