Mending a Torn Psychic Fabric: Torture and Tikkun Olam

Article excerpt

NO ACT MORE PROFOUNDLY VIOLATES HUMAN RIGHTS THAN TORTURE. While governments may conceivably defend certain deadly military actions as painful necessities, can any government defend deliberate torture? Widespread evidence documents that physical and psychological torture is not merely a brutal interrogation tactic. Repressive governments around the world, and apparently the U.S. military, often employ torture as a mechanism of collective control, targeting select individuals to systematically traumatize entire communities and cripple their belief in the future.

But torture survivors can restore the future. The healing stories of courageous survivors bear witness that individuals can overcome even the most egregious attacks on human dignity. While torture produces devastating psychological impact, survivors now safely residing in the United States and abroad have been able to undergo rehabilitation and begin leading productive lives. A powerful international movement to support survivors has emerged in the last twenty years led by professionally staffed torture treatment centers in major metropolitan areas, offering psychotherapy, medical aid, social services, and asylum assistance. This work testifies that the inner power to heal can overcome the destructive will of political authority, and additionally serve as a spiritual base for the long struggle to end governmentsponsored torture worldwide.

Most Americans are hardly aware how extensively the invisible wounds of torture permeate our national community. Survivors from well over a hundred countries and every major continent reside in the United States. According to Immigration and Naturalization Service statistics, over two million refugees have entered the United States within the last twentyfive years, an estimated 5 to 35 percent of them torture survivors. Anywhere from 100,000 to 700,000 refugee survivors may be living in this country. If the substantial numbers of legal asylees and undocumented immigrant survivors are added, the totals may be more than twice these figures.

We may feel powerless and even ashamed recognizing the widespread presence of torture's legacy in our midst. This understanding may be particularly painful in light of evidence that implicates our own government in the use of torture at military facilities including Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, and through 'rendering' terror suspects to repressive foreign governments for interrogation.

Supporting the emerging work of the torture treatment movement challenges the belief that individual citizens have no power to address the grave injury of torture inflicted beyond our borders. At least thirty treatment centers operate in or near major metropolitan areas across the United States, and over 200 exist internationally. Although at present only a fraction of survivors receive treatment, every individual who reclaims a fulfilling life in the wake of being tortured provides a model for others and helps repair the fabric of a torn community.

Rehabilitation is a deeply individual process that must respond to the particular complexities of a survivor's experience. The varieties of wounding are unimaginably vast. A student picked up at a demonstration, detained, and beaten in an overnight interrogation has a far different experience than an activist isolated in long term detention and forced to participate in the torture of others, or a mother who witnesses genocide and is raped in front of her children. The living situations for survivors resettling in a foreign country also vary tremendously. Does the individual have a protected legal status, adequate economic means, local family ties, functional language skills, or limiting medical conditions?

The term treatment implies a medical approach, but generally treatment centers offer practical service assistance as a first order, including living and cultural skills training, forensic documentation for asylum applications, and social service referrals. …