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What is Torture Like?

Dear President Obama,

If word reached me that you were being tortured, I would instantly feel tortured myself, because I would be. Torture is something an entire society feels, whether we are within earshot of the screaming or not. People don’t like to believe this, but there is no way human beings can remain unaffected by what is done to other human beings, or even to animals who are not human. If I heard this about you, I would do everything in my power to come to your aid, not simply because I know you to be rare and necessary to our planetary survival, but because you are simply a person, with feelings, aspirations, sorrows and dreams. And you have children. If I were a child and knew my parent was being tortured, day after day, what would I myself become?

It has already been recognized that “confessions” obtained by torture are useless. It is easy to see why. If someone is water boarding you and you think you will never see your little ones again, you would say anything. So would I. It is only in movies, I think, where the “hero” tells the torturer nothing as various body parts are cut, burned, frozen, electro-shocked or pulled out.

If one keeps company with cruel people, one loses, bit by bit, one’s own compassion. This is one of the reasons living in Washington, in the White House, as leader of the United States, is so treacherous. And why I said to you when we met briefly prior to my introducing you to my community in San Francisco, that failure to win the presidency had not insignificant value: you could have a fine life living as a writer, doing and saying what you want, and traveling the world incognito and free. Leadership has its down side, and one of them is who one has to associate with in order to “get things done.” When we look at the destruction, around the globe, caused by prior leaders of our country, and the terrible choices of how to behave, and we look at the White House today and see some of those folks still coming and going; what can I say? It gives us pause.

Ringing in my ears is something I thought I heard you say: America does not torture. And if this is true, now, under your watch, this letter is unnecessary. I also thought I heard you say Indefinite Detention Without Charge was gone with the wind of George Bush’s administration. Was I wrong? Writers, and especially poets, don’t always keep their ears to the political ground, and so we are likely to miss the daily dramas that keep others informed. I hope you are holding steady on these points, because if you are, you are right. The cruelty and injustice of holding anyone indefinitely without charge will not lead to carefree days and guilt-free nights for you or for any citizen of the U.S., and we want those days and nights in order to convince the youth of the world that there are basic human laws protecting their right to grow up without fear of endless detention.

I think about people in prison, being tortured, being bombed, being frightened and starved and humiliated, every single day. Voting for you was one way I felt I could reach out to them, fiction and poetry writing, even protests and arrests, having their limitations. You are the world’s hope for a better, a fairer, day. You have what few leaders of this country ever had: genuine affection and love from the people who elected you. We are good people, too, for the most part. And even if we weren’t, we can be improved by a leadership of compassion, a leadership whose basic human instincts of fairness and decency we can trust to look at the whole story, the entire state of affairs, and not close off any portion of it. A leadership unafraid to hold accountable those responsible for torture and abuse. This is our only hope, actually, to begin to soothe a little of the sorrow in the world. It isn’t a desire for vengeance, because we know vengeance, a karma, is created by Itself; it is instead a need to make right, to make whole again, by demonstrating to an injured and insulted world that we, as Americans, care about the harm other Americans, in our name, have done. We must show above all that we wish to understand our own madness in order not to continue growing and exporting it.

We know your plate is full. And I am always happy to hear of you and Michelle going off somewhere out of town for dinner. (No pun!) Any complaint about the cost is ridiculous: what your time away from your desk does for the world is priceless. You are a Leo/Ox and only someone with your combination of strengths could handle the presidency, which you do with grace. (What can I say? I love astrology!) Even so, it’s too much for one person, or two; I myself favor a council for leading the country, but that is far in the future. Maybe not too far! So, delegate. We need the world to know we don’t accept the behavior as usual of American presidents and others who do horrible things to people, and then retire, wealthy, into memoir writing and golf; as if the disasters inflicted on a vulnerable world never happened. I applaud and deeply appreciate all the good work you are, in fact, doing. It is huge. And beautiful, which I personally resonate with in world leadership. It has a beat. It has a heart.

In closing, I send this poem about torture that I wrote a few weeks ago and posted on my blog, http://www.alicewalkersblog.com

DYING
For those who with our taxes die of torture

What is it like
Dying?
Is it like
Sinking
Into a bath
Of warm
Milk?

Is it like
Lying naked
In the
Sun
Those first
Truly
Warm
Days
Of Spring
After
A winter
That
Froze
Your teeth?

Dying
I think
Can be
Like that.
Above all,
It
Is yours.
It is
A safe
Place.

They may
Be
Electrocuting
Your
Toes
At
The time
Or
Pulling out
Your
Finger
Nails
Or
Causing
Your terrified
Heart to stop
In
Other
Ingenious
Ways.

But
Dying
You
Escape
Them
Into
Peace.

They will
Never
Know
Something
Only
You
Can have.

Dying
Is yours.

Precious
Human being;
Whatever you
Have done.

Dying
Is
Your secret.

***

©2009 by ALICE WALKER

With loving kindness,
& despite the gravity
Of the subject, Joy,

ALICE WALKER
From the Ten Against Torture Campaign

ALICE WALKER is the author of The Color Purple and other novels and books of poetry. She can be reached through her blog.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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