What does it feel like to be tortured?
Now that the Senate report on CIA interrogations and abuse is out, there must be millions of Americans who are asking themselves that question.
Unfortunately, the answer is that, unless you have lived through that demonic experience yourself, you cannot ever really know.
I wish it were otherwise.
I have been shadowed by torture and its imminent possibility for over forty years, ever since a military coup on September 11, 1973, overthrew the democratic government in my country, Chile. So many friends limping into exile, sharing tales of how their bodies were violated in so many ways with so many sharp and blunt instruments. So many nights listening, with my wife, Angelica, by my side, to what happened to them, step by step, horror after horror. And so many times the despair at my own innocence, the safe cocoon of distance, both physical and mental, protecting me from evil, so many times realizing that I was unable to understand, truly understand, what it means to be stripped naked and forced onto a cot covered with the vomit of previous clients. So many times, wishing and not wishing to surmount the gulf yawning between me and the victims, wanting and not wanting to be contaminated by that knowledge of perversity.
And yet, though I was aware that pain cannot, by definition, be transmitted through words or translated into the rational chronology of spoken or written language—that pain is, literally, unspeakable—even so, I have tried over these decades to access, through a series of remarkable books, a certain obscene familiarity with that extreme form of suffering. Some of those who survived that ordeal had managed to shatter that innocence and distance, invite readers to picture the vulnerability and agony of being at the utter mercy of some cold, taunting, omnipotent god who can decide, at the flick of a finger or the whiplash of a command from a tongue, whether you live or you die, whether your body is torn from you like an earthquake or if you are allowed to subside into the dreadful calm of awaiting the next bout of agony.
Perhaps the most famous of all these harrowing accounts is Prisoner without a Name, Cell without a Number (1981) by Jacobo Timerman, an Argentine journalist imprisoned and tortured by the military of his native land. The author spares us nothing, has no pity on himself or his readers, will not let us escape the systematic way, day after day after night after night, in which he is dehumanized—the brutality and hatred of his tormentors augmented by their crass anti-Semitism. What is most sobering about Timerman’s memoir is that these practices were far from new, reminding him of what the Nazis had perfected against other humans just a few decades earlier.