A few days ago I spent hours speaking with a close friend of mine. The subject was torture. It was one of the most moving and painful conversations of my life. You see, my friend is a survivor of ritual abuse, his nightmarish childhood spent in a family cult where Satan-worship, rape, incest, torture and even murder were practiced regularly.
Whenever he broaches the topic, I usually ask for a glass of water. It is not an easy story to listen to, nor one to tell. Yet he tells it in a somewhat detached manner, as though he were looking down on his life through a hole in the roof. That, I suppose, is the only way one could tell such a story. It is the way he learned to survive.
At one point in the conversation, I asked him how he viewed the accusations of torture practiced by our own government at places like Abu-Ghraib, as well as various so-called “black sights,” and the ongoing abuse of political prisoners such as Bradley Manning. My friend took a deep, rather shaky breath and sighed. Then he said something that shook me. “It’s the same stuff,” he nodded.
When I asked what he meant, he described in detail some of the tortures inflicted upon him. I will not share those details here, because I was sickened. The more “benign” involved forced nudity, shaming, and threats regarding the loss of body parts. But I was shocked at many similarities between the kind of abuse he endured and the reports of prisoner abuse perpetrated by our own government and military– both being an assault on the victim’s belief structure through terror, ending in some kind of psychological collapse, despair, and ultimately passive cooperation. It is all about power–raw, naked, and evil. Both sets of perpetrators seeking to break their victims, not just physically, but spiritually.
At certain points in the conversation, I squirmed in my seat. But he went on to tell me one story from early childhood. The cult leaders were trying to force his cooperation in some ritual, and when he refused, someone took out a revolver, spun the cylinder, cocked the hammer, pointed it at his forehead and— click. This was repeated again and again. Whether the gun was actually loaded, he did not know. All he knew was that after several minutes of this, he did not care whether he lived or died. Indeed, he said, he would have preferred death then to the tyranny of uncertainty that menaced him. And he was just a little boy.
“But I recall one time,” he said, “I watched powerless as they began to torture someone else. I don’t think I even knew that person, but I remember this surge of righteous anger building up inside me. It felt like a hot and holy rage. And a voice not my own echoed inside my head, ‘YOU–HAVE–NO–RIGHT!'”
Although he did not say so, I got the impression my friend felt this to be the voice of God. And it was this simple statement that acted like a faint glimmer of light and hope in a darkened shaft, enabling him somehow to hold on and even to reconnect with God later in life. “You have no right.” It is a declaration of human dignity that probably all human beings who have suffered such inhuman treatment, whether they be prisoners of war or victims of domestic or child abuse, would ascribe to.
That was the bottom line. They had no right. No one has the right to torture another human being made in God’s image. It degrades the divine image in the tortured. It degrades the image in the torturer. No matter what someone has done, whether they are innocent or guilty, no matter how heinous a crime they may have committed or could commit, we have no right to treat a human being with such cruel disrespect. Such blasphemy is simply godless, satanic. My friend was right. The source is the same.
Shaken, I rose from our discussion certainly less innocent but grateful for the awareness it had brought. We have no right. It’s that simple. And so I both pray for and tremble for my country, which in a kind of godless arrogance born of imperial hubris, continues to think it possesses the keys to life and death over other human beings.