What torture has taught me

illustrations by Brad Holland
Twelve years at the helm of Amnesty International challenged and affirmed William F. Schulz’s Unitarian Universalism.
Image: illustrations by Brad Holland


There is a smell to refugee camps that, once you have inhaled it, you never forget: goat dung and human waste; sweat and tears and unstaunched menstrual blood; but also a smell of desperation that gives way to sagging shoulders and the decay of the human soul. For a body can be clothed in the raiment of fear or stalked daily by death for only so long before the soul—whatever makes the human animal “human”—begins to collapse on itself as surely as the shoulders do.

I traveled to the refugee camps inhabited by the terrorized exiles from Darfur, Sudan, as executive director of Amnesty International USA. My twelve years with Amnesty, concluded earlier this year, were often inspiring. Meeting modern heroes such as Wei Jingsheng, the father of Chinese democracy, after his seventeen years in prison, and working with several of the 123 Americans who had served years on death row and were subsequently exonerated, were both a privilege and an inspiration to me. Meeting the refugees from Darfur, though, and then confronting the government officials who had ordered the terror from their state offices in Khartoum, brought me deep sorrow and outrage.

But nothing has had a deeper impact on me during the past twelve years than my exposure to torture—meeting both victims and perpetrators of torture, and understanding the profound impact it has on all of us. Torture has influenced how I understand God, human beings, ministry, and the world.

About a week after I began working at Amnesty, I came across a report of how the Mujahideen in Afghanistan—the predecessors to the Taliban—got rid of their prisoners. They tied each live prisoner to a corpse and then left the pair out in the sun to rot. Simple, low tech, and utterly terrifying.

About 130 countries in the world, close to two-thirds, practice torture. An ancient Greek philosopher’s response to that statistic would have been utter astonishment. “Why only two-thirds?” he would have said. “Why not every one?” For the ancient Greeks, and for the Romans who came after them, torture was not only acceptable, it was standard practice. But the Greeks were discriminating about who could be tortured and why. Only slaves—not free citizens—could be subjected to the whip and the chain. The ancients believed slaves did not possess the faculty of reason and hence lacked the capacity to dissemble. If you wanted to know the truth about something, all you had to do was to torture a slave, who, unlike a free citizen, wouldn’t be smart enough to lie to you.

The “rational” use of torture extended into medieval times. In the Middle Ages both civil and religious courts believed it was unethical to convict someone of a crime based on somebody else’s word alone. The only valid evidence of thievery or heresy or murder was a confession, and what more effective way to elicit a confession than the rack and the screw?

The first country to abolish torture was the Kingdom of Prussia, in 1754. For about 150 years torture went out of vogue as an official instrument of government policy. But in the twentieth century it raised its ugly head again, with an important difference: Torture became an instrument of pleasure, a means of intimidating political opponents, a way to inflict pain on another person for the sheer sadistic joy of it. Abu Ghraib struck Americans like a thunderbolt because even the staunchest defender of the use of torture could not pretend that forcing naked prisoners to form a pyramid or to masturbate for the cameras or to be tethered to a leash like a dog has any purpose other than humiliation.

Sixty-three percent of Americans say that torture is acceptable in some cases—for example, when information about the location of a ticking bomb in a high-density neighborhood must be procured quickly—according to a 2005 survey by the Pew Research Center of People and the Press. The perennial “ticking bomb” argument for torture, however, is itself a red herring. First, torture rarely leads to accurate information. Second, torture generates enormous resentment among victims and their communities—resentment that may prompt the planting of far more bombs and hence the killing of far more people than might be saved in the first place. And third, as we have seen at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, once a government sanctions torture, the slope into what even the heartiest advocates of torture would find morally reprehensible is a fast and slippery one. Once torture is sanctioned, there are no clear limits to its application: Would those 63 percent surveyed justify torturing a roomful of innocent subjects on the chance one of them might have information? What if direct torture of a suspect fails to open his mouth—but the torture of his two-year-old daughter might? There is simply no way to argue confidently that the moral good will outweigh the damage torture does.

In my years at Amnesty I was perpetually dumbstruck by the creativity of modern torturers. Beatings are the most commonplace form of the art—on the back, the buttocks, most painfully on the feet. Electroshock—especially to the penis, the vagina, the eyelids, the earlobes—is quickly gaining popularity with ever more sophisticated equipment available now even to the general public. But these are for mere beginners.

In Brazil, prisoners in the 1980s were stripped naked and locked in small, bare concrete cells with only one other occupant—a boa constrictor.

In Central America in the 1990s soldiers were notorious for ripping open the wombs of pregnant women, tossing the fetuses into the air and catching them on their bayonets.

In Augusto Pinochet’s Chile in the 1970s and ’80s, women were raped by men with visible syphilitic sores, sexually abused by dogs trained in the practice, forced to watch their own children being sexually assaulted, and then fed the putrefied remains of their fellow captives.

In contrast, our American obsession with water torture—most recently in the form of waterboarding, in which a detainee is strapped down and held under water—sounds almost mild. During the U.S. occupation of the Philippines at the turn of the twentieth century, our soldiers inserted bamboo tubes into victims’s throats and poured in gallons of water, the filthier the better. The Filipinos got their revenge, however. They buried captured American soldiers up to their heads in manure, poured molasses over their heads and dropped hundreds of fire ants into the molasses.

Practices such as these have no rational purpose at all. They are designed solely to strip another of his or her humanity. If anything deserves to be called unadulterated evil, this does.

For the past twelve years this question has haunted me: Is what I say from the pulpit about the world around us, about the nature of God and humanity, about the dynamics of human relationships—is what I preach to people sufficient to encompass a world in which such coarseness and brutality exists? For I have always regarded myself first and foremost as a Unitarian Universalist minister. This faith and community have always been the principal resources from which I draw my strength, though I have taken a long detour and seen things both horrific and awesome along the way.

Liberal Christian theologian Sallie McFague says, “There is no place where God is not.” Process theologian Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki insists,“[God is] pervasively present, like water, to every nook and cranny of the universe, continuously wooing the universe . . . toward its greater good.”

But I would submit that no God worthy of the name is present in a torture chamber. I have talked to dozens of survivors of torture, read hundreds of others’ accounts. I have rarely, with the exception of some Muslim prisoners in U.S. custody, come across testimony that it was faith in God that saw them through the night. This has surprised me because survivors of other tragedies often say later that their faith sustained them through their ordeal. The torture victims I’ve encountered often talk about how they survived—by focusing on loved ones, their political cause, their hatred for their torturer, or their comradeship with other prisoners—but they rarely mention God or faith. I suspect that is because when the needle slips under the fingernails and the pliers rip them off, that pain obliterates the very face of God.

I am not trying to score some cheap point against the notion of God. Over the years I have myself become increasingly comfortable using the word to describe that source of graciousness upon which we depend for our very lives. All I am saying is that, whatever our conception of God (should we have one), it needs to be both complex enough and circumscribed enough to account for the fact that God’s absence—true absence—is as real a phenomenon as God’s immanence.

Similarly, our doctrines about human nature, such as the Unitarian Universalist Association’s affirmation of “the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” rest uneasily in a world full of torturers. In what sense can we defend the notion that a torturer is a person of inherent worth and dignity?

South African neuropsychologist Victor Nell has recently theorized that cruelty, especially in males, is grounded in an adaptive reaction from the Paleozoic era. When early humans had to hunt for their food, the appearance of pain and blood in the prey signaled the success of the hunt. Gradually the evocation of howls of pain and of blood in our fellow humans became associated with personal and social power. That theory strikes me as plausible, but it doesn’t lend much credence to the notion of inherent dignity.

Who are the torturers? Are they madmen? Deviants? Hardened criminals? Sexual predators? Almost never. In fact, most police and military units weed out the psychological misfits because they know such people have trouble taking orders. The horrible truth is that the vast majority of torturers are average Joes and, on rare occasions, Janes.

Turning Joe into what most of us would regard as a monster is remarkably easy. You put him in a restricted environment, such as a police or military training camp, under the command of a vaunted authority figure. You subject him to intense stress. (The Greek military police in antiquity, for example, were renowned for their brutality—each recruit was subjected during training to severe beatings, forced to go weeks without food, and not permitted to defecate for up to fifteen days at a time.) Then, having created an angry, bitter, but obedient servant, you provide the sanction, the means, the opportunity, and the rationale for that servant to take his outrage out on a vulnerable but despised population. You tell him: “These are the people who are threatening our country. These are the people who are killing your comrades.”

Who is this creature of “inherent dignity” who is so easily led astray? Sixty-five years ago James Luther Adams, the most renowned Unitarian theologian and ethicist of the twentieth century, delivered a Berry Street Lecture that was a turning point in liberal religious understanding of human nature. While he rejected the doctrine of total depravity, he resurrected the notion of “sin”:

[W]hether the liberal uses the word “sin” or not, he cannot correct his “too jocund” [blithe] view of life until he recognizes that there is in human nature a deep-seated and universal tendency . . . to ignore the demands of mutuality and thus to waste freedom or abuse it by devotion to the idols of the tribe. . . . It cannot be denied that religious liberalism has neglected these aspects of human nature in its zeal to proclaim the spark of divinity in man. We may call these tendencies by any name we wish but we do not escape their destructive influence by a conspiracy of silence concerning them.

Have we forgotten Adams’s exhortation? If we no longer think of human beings as made in the “likeness of God,” are we not still reticent to dwell on the features of the flesh that make us not just “slightly lower than the angels” but out of the angels’ league altogether? Do Unitarian Universalists even have a commonly shared doctrine of human nature today, and if we do, is it sufficient to explain why even the most reputable souls may, under the right circumstances, be transformed into savages?

When I was seven or eight years old, I lived across the street from a little dog named Amy. Every afternoon after school let out, Amy and I would play together. One of Amy’s favorite games was a dancing game in which I held her two forepaws in my hands and we would dance around the yard. Sometimes Amy even put her paws in my lap to signal that she wanted to dance. But I noticed that after a few minutes Amy’s hind legs would get sore and she would pull her paws away. The first few times we played our dancing game, I dropped her paws the moment I sensed her discomfort.

But one day I decided to hold on. The more Amy tugged, the tighter I held on until finally, when she yelped in agony, I let her go. But the next day I repeated my demonic game. It was fascinating to feel this little creature, so much less powerful than I, entirely at my mercy.

I was lucky that Amy was such a gentle dog for she had every right to have bitten me. After two or three days I saw that my friend, who had previously scrambled eagerly toward me, now cowered at my approach. I realized with a start what I had done, and I was deeply frightened of myself and much ashamed. Whatever had come over me that I would treat someone I had loved that way?

What had come over me, I now know, was the displacement of anger onto one who held no threat to me. Bullies at school might pick on me. My parents might tell their only child what he could and could not do. My piano teacher might try to slam the keyboard cover on my fingers when I played off key. But in that yard I ruled supreme. Not only did I hold the power, but the one who was powerless for a change was Not Me.

Adams, like nineteen centuries of theologians before him, would try to rescue humanity from its own degradation by asserting that freedom was what underpinned our inherent worth—the capacity I retained to stop tormenting Amy, the fact that not every student of torture chooses to finish the course.

But is freedom sufficient to overcome the basest of brutality? When we speak of the “inherent worth and dignity of every person,” are we really thinking of free agency anyway? I doubt it. I suspect that we base our belief in the inherent worth of human beings on some far vaguer notion that aliveness itself is good and that because human beings represent the pinnacle of aliveness, we inherently possess some kind of merit.

I don’t buy that anymore. I have fought tirelessly against the death penalty in this country. I have visited death rows and spoken frequently with condemned prisoners. Some of them have acknowledged their crimes and altered their hearts. Others are truly innocent. Many are mentally ill. And some are vicious, dangerous killers who will kill again given the opportunity. I oppose the death penalty not because I believe that every one of those lives carries inherent worth. In some cases their deaths would be no loss at all to anyone. I oppose the death penalty because I can’t be sure which of them falls into which category and because the use of executions by the state diminishes my own dignity and that of every other citizen in whose name it is enforced. In other words, I need to assign the occupants of death row worth and dignity in order to preserve my own. But I find no such characteristics inherent in either them or me.

If a loved one of mine were murdered, I would want her murderer to suffer the worst torments of hell I could imagine. No torture would be too great to satisfy my lust for revenge. But I do not want the state to indulge me in my worst impulses. Part of the role of government is to save us from our basest passions in order to extract some semblance of worth and dignity out of the muck and meanness that infect our hearts.

Is the worth and dignity of every person inherent? No, inherency is a construct, a useful myth perhaps, but a myth nonetheless, designed to cover up the fact that we all are sinners and that we are not always certain which sins, and hence which sinners, are worse than others. Each of us has to be assigned worth—it does not come automatically—and taught to behave with dignity. As Jean-Paul Sartre once said, “If it were not for the petty rules of bourgeois society, we humans would destroy each other in an instant.”

So who does the assigning of worth? How do we decide that something is a sin? How do we know that torture is wrong? What is the basis for human rights?

There are only three options. Rights are established by divinity, by natural law, or by pragmatic consensus. I wish we could get everybody to agree on one of the first two. But the philosophical and religious clashes that have raged unceasingly and often violently since the birth of civilization prove that we cannot. So we are left with public opinion—global public opinion, to be sure, but public opinion.

This is a discomfiting notion. We Unitarian Universalists are champions of the individual as the source of authority for both truth and righteousness. We are aficionados of the lonely, courageous soul standing up for truth, justice, and Esperanto even in the face of the crowd’s disparagement. But you know something? Most of the time those lonely, courageous souls are sheer crackpots. Unless they can get a whole bunch of other people to agree with them—at least eventually—we would usually be wise to keep them at a safe distance.

Was torture wrong even before anyone in the world, including the slaves being tortured, thought it was wrong? The hard answer is no. Or if it was wrong in some parallel ethical universe, it was no violation of anybody’s rights until a significant number of people in this world began to say that it was. When South Carolina shut down its video poker parlors a few years ago, one stalwart gambler was quoted as saying, “This is like the state telling me I have no rights. It’s pretty close to being Communist.” I’m sorry, but there is as yet no international consensus that all human beings have a right to play video poker.

Human rights are whatever the international community—through its various declarations, covenants, treaties, and conventions—say that they are. This means that theoretically at least the world could regress and torture could once again be deemed acceptable. But since the birth of the modern human rights movement in 1948, with the adoption of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we have seen that the more people who are involved in decision making about rights, including the victims of their violation, the less likely the backsliding. If there is one arena in which Theodore Parker’s famous dictum that “the arc of the universe bends toward justice” seems to have been borne out, it is the evolution of human rights.

When it comes to deciding right and wrong, when it comes to assigning worth and dignity, the individual is not the final source of authority. Without a reference to the values of the larger community—of the world community, not of any one nation alone—our individual judgments are fit only for a desert island on which we are the only occupant.

This means that our job as religious people, as builders of the blessed community, is tougher and more important than ever. For if we can’t rely on the inherency of human worth and dignity, if we have to assign worth and teach dignity, then we must confront those who would reserve worth to only a few and save dignity for their immediate neighbors—people like those children and grandchildren of immigrants, for example, who would not be where they are today if their forebears had been treated the way they propose to treat a new generation of Americans. If the individual is not the ultimate source of authority when it comes to some of the most important decisions on earth, like who lives and who doesn’t, then our own personal religious stories are inadequate—not deleterious or to be shunned, but insufficient for a faith that would not just engage the world but transform it. What torture has taught me is that, fascinating as I find my own life, it alone is a cloudy prism through which to view Creation absent reference to the experience of others, the wisdom of community, the demands of tradition, the judgment of history, and the invitation of the Holy.

At the same time that these past twelve years have caused me to rethink the nature of God, the inherency of human worth, and the credibility of individual authority, they have confirmed two other bedrock Unitarian Universalist principles—the indomitability of the spirit and the mysterious workings of an unfettered grace.

Consider these two short vignettes from among dozens of encounters in my time at Amnesty. Nick Yarris spent twenty-three years on death row in Pennsylvania for a murder he did not commit—a singular form of torture. Asked how he felt on his release, he replied, “What are my choices? I could be really devastated and angry and let them continue to own me, or I could have fun. [Having fun] sounds better. . . . The lowest insult would be if I came out destroyed, a broken man. . . . My survival technique was to become a good man.”

The Rev. Luis Pérez Aguirre, a Jesuit priest and human-rights leader in Uruguay, was repeatedly arrested and tortured in prison. Years later, walking along the street, he ran into the man who had tortured him, as Lawrence Weschler recounts in A Miracle, A Universe: Settling Accounts with Torturers. The torturer was now being prosecuted, and he tried to avoid Pérez Aguirre’s gaze. But Pérez Aguirre took the initiative. He called him over and asked how he was. The man said he was very depressed. He was being prosecuted for his crimes. After a moment’s pause, Pérez Aguirre responded, “If you need anything, come to me. I forgive you.”

What torture has taught me, what all those brave souls and even a few of their tormentors have taught me, is to never give up on the glimmers of grace. If even survivors of torture can reclaim a sense of life’s bounty, then surely you and I can, too. If the torturer cannot fully break the human spirit, nobody can.

An earlier version of this essay was delivered as the Berry Street Lecture at the UUA General Assembly in St. Louis in June 2006.

Related Resources

From the Archives

Companion Articles