Torture, for real

Pub date September 18, 2012

OPINION Last week I walked into my favorite café in SoMa and noticed the barista wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the black and orange word “torture.”

I froze. I knew I was holding up the line but I didn’t care. I had to ask about that shirt.

“Oh, it’s to promote the San Francisco Giants,” he said. He continued speaking, not noticing my umbrage. “So do you want your coffee hot or cold today?”

I wanted to keep talking about that shirt, but I didn’t know what to say. “I will have my coffee cold please,” I told him.

For the past ten years, torture has never been far from me. When I worked at Amnesty International, it was two doors down in the person of my colleague Kumar, who was tortured in Sri Lanka for advocating for Tamil rights. When I was on Capitol Hill as a foreign policy aide in the House of Representatives, I saw lawmakers justify President Obama’s lackadaisical attitude towards US torture.

One of the first things I learned at Amnesty International is the power and the responsibility of words. Human-rights work is about finding and verifying stories and then giving those stories names: war crime, rape, genocide … torture. It’s in the naming that our action begins. When we use the word torture it carries weight—and can heal wounds—because for so many people, their torture is denied, rationalized, or trivialized.

When I see the word torture on a t-shirt I do more than cringe: I mourn how far we are as a nation from a serious discussion of the use of torture by our own government.

Just last week Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Justice Department was closing the last two cases examining harsh CIA interrogation tactics during the Bush administration.

According to the ACLU, “(CIA) Interrogators were told they could use, among other tactics, extended sleep deprivation; ‘stress positions’ such as forced-standing, handcuffing in painful crouched positions and shackling people to the ceiling, usually for hours or even days; confining prisoners to small, coffin-like boxes with air and light cut off; extended forced nudity; sensory bombardment; extreme temperatures; hooding; and physical beatings, including slamming prisoners into walls.”

I can understand and I can attest that watching your team blow a lead in the bottom of the ninth is painful, excruciating even. It might cause you to drink or curse or smoke more. But it’s not torture. It doesn’t violate the core of your being. It doesn’t terrorize your nights.

Standing in line at the café that day, I thought of my friend Firoze who was tortured so badly he can no longer have sex. I wonder what he would say if were staring at the Barista with the “torture” t-shirt.

He would probably laugh and say it’s just a game. And then he might say what he told me each time we met: “People have no idea.”

Zahir Janmohamed recently completed a fellowship at the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto and is writing a book about Juhapura, the largest ghetto of Muslims in India