WASHINGTON — On a day when the United States found itself involved in a political fistfight over whether torture works, a sparsely attended congressional hearing on treating torture victims should have reminded the nation why the practice is banned in the first place.
“I don’t want to be reminded of what I face in my home country,” said Fikreyohanes G. Tale, a victim of torture in Ethiopia, during his testimony before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission. “I had the nightmares — that was my great problem.”
Tale, who spoke in halting English, chose not to elaborate on the specifics of his ordeal, but his testimony conveyed the trauma of torture just the same.
“Too often nowadays, we talk about torture in the abstract,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., who co-chairs the Lantos Commission. “But torture is real, it is brutal, and it is traumatizing.”
The commission met Thursday to hear testimony about reauthorizing the Torture Victims Relief Act (TVRA). First passed in 1998, TVRA provides funding to torture treatment programs in the U.S. and abroad to help rehabilitate torture survivors.
More than 100 million people worldwide have survived torture, Dr. Allen Keller, head of the NYU Program for Survivors of Torture, told the hearing. Tens of thousands of these survivors reside in the U.S., and that number is increasing drastically as waves of Iraqi refugees arrive in the country.
“The horror is the overwhelming numbers, that in modern times torture still happens all the time,” said Keller.
To drive home torture’s brutality, Keller told the stories of victims he had treated. One victim he treated was viciously beaten and deprived of sleep as loud music was blasted into his cell.
“He developed cataracts from all the hits to the head,” said Keller. “He can also speak better than anyone I know to why sleep deprivation is torture.”
Douglas A. Johnson, the executive director of the Center for Victims of Torture, said that this was an appropriate moment to be holding the hearing.
“We are in the middle of a national debate over torture. This is the very same debate found in states around the world that are transitioning from a state of torture to the rule of law,” Johnson said.
Johnson added that in order to avoid being distracted from the politics of the debate, we need to understand the societal consequences of torture. Johnson said that torture undermines civil society and the rule of law and creates a state of fear in which citizens do not trust their government.
“The world will watch our big debate in relation to their own experiences with torture,” Johnson said. “They are not expecting an immediate response, for it may take a generation to resolve, but they want to know that America is back in the trenches with them trying to create a world without torture.”