Saturday, February 16, 2008

When We Torture

I was so moved by Nicholas Kristof's editorial by this same title in the NY Times the other day, that I had to go to his blog to comment. He wrote a devastating description of the treatment that the Guantanamo "detainees" (what a euphemism!) are being subjected to. In particular he described the year long force feeding of photojournalist Sami al-Hajj who has been held for six years without any concrete evidence of wrongdoing. Apparently he's been beaten so badly that he cannot squat to relieve himself.

I try to make sense of this and ponder what could have happened to our once great country that we can allow this to happen under our watch. It would seem that the torturer, not the prisoner, is the one more completely diminished by the act.

Kristof's editorial and our continued presence in Iraq was in the back of my mind as Don and I watched a powerful movie last night called The Battle for Algiers. Released in the mid-'60's, it could have been made yesterday. The film sheds some light on how a terrorist is formed and why. In this case the plight is that of the Algerian people who, under oppressive French rule, have been losing their independence, their ability to work and raise their families in peace in their own country. A revolutionary grassroots organization forms and women and men work together to retake their country. The battle is long and bloody and relies on terroristic activities including detonating bombs in public places, one of the most heinous means of intimidation the human mind has ever invented. Still, when you watch these people trying to reclaim their homeland and witness the torture methods used by the French to glean information, you can comprehend, if not fully understand, how a person might be driven to become something other than what God intended when and if he created us.

First time novelist Dalia Sofer also examines the psychology of torture and its aftermath in her moving, and one surmises, semi-autobiographical novel, The Septembers of Shiraz. After the Iranian revolution, life for the Isaac Amin family changes quickly and drastically. Wealth can no longer be held by the few, no matter that Isaac worked for years as a rare gems dealer to provide his family with a better life. The Revolutionary Army is everywhere and no one can be trusted. Once loyal servants are now suspect and people disappear without warning. The Amins send their only son, Parviz, to safety in the United States where he lives with an Hasidic Jewish family in New York. Much of the book contrasts his loneliness as a cultural outsider here in the states with that of his father Isaac, who is being held imprisoned and incommunicado by the Revolutionary Guard, who use torture with impunity.

While, in theory, Isaac has done nothing wrong, readers are able to see through the eyes of one of the guards, that families like Isaac's have spent their entire lives accumulating wealth while turning a blind eye to less fortunate Iranians. Isaac's wife, in particular, comes off as a self centered, acquisitive woman, more concerned with her daily comforts even than with her husband's suffering. It doesn't take a Phd. to figure out how the ever widening gap between the haves and have nots can sow the seeds for a revolution. There's a message here for us should we choose to hear it.

This is a sophisticated, beautifully wrought novel by a young woman who escaped to this country from Iran at the age of ten. An MFA from Sarah Lawrence and a stint at Yaddo indicate that her talent was discovered early on. I look forward to novel number two.

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