This morning I attended a teach-in at the Georgetown University Law Center on Torture and Extraordinary Rendition. The panelists discussed the issue of torture, current torture cases, and pending legislation that will attempt to stop the Bush Administration from torturing. There were many legal, constitutional, and practical arguments put forth as to why torture should not be practiced. However, one argument stood out amongst all the rest. That argument was made by Nora Mislem – a woman, a mother, a torture survivor. In this post I want to tell you her story as best as I can convey with written words. Her story is her argument against torture.
Nora Mislem is from Honduras. In the early 1980s she was amongst a group of leftist students in Honduras who went to the Salvadoran border to assist refugees fleeing El Salvador. During this time the Honduran government was running CIA backed death squads to crush and terrorize the opposition. The Reagan Administration, in its proxy war against Marxist guerrillas in Central America, was training and supporting ruthless regimes in Honduras and other neighboring countries. In Honduras, the most notorious acts of murder and torture were being carried out by a CIA trained unit called Battalion 316. In 1981 and again in 1982 Nora Mislem was kidnapped by men from Battalion 316.
Under the custody of Battalion 316, Nora Mislem suffered torture like countless other victims. I sat silent today in the auditorium as she recounted in Spanish what horrors her torturers inflicted upon her. Every once in a while she paused as her translator, Sister Maureen from Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition, described in English the horrors we knew she had spoken in her native tongue. In the next few sentences I will recount what I heard. But when I write them they will sound to the reader like many other tales of torture I am sure you have heard about. However, when I heard them today from her they were neither banal nor distant. They were the words of a human being who had suffered unimaginable horrors at the hands of monsters who continue to live among us.
Nora Mislem was tied up and hooded. She was handcuffed and tied with rubber tubing. She was told that her two-year-old son had been killed by the death squads in retaliation. She was told that soon her parents too would be killed. She was beaten. She was given electric shock all over her body including her genitals. A plastic bag was brought out. A machete was put to her head. She was told she was a dog. She was told her head would be cut off and put in the plastic bag for other dogs to eat. She was told that her genitals would be mutilated. She was repeatedly violated by her male torturers. Then without hope, she was released to live with the physical and emotional scars forever.
I asked her afterwards why she thinks she was tortured, what did her torturers hope to gain by torturing her? She said to me that she believes that she was tortured to instill fear and terror in the population. Others who dared to speak out against the government would face a similar fate. Her torture was an act of terrorism, not a method of interrogation. The purpose was to intimidate and humiliate. Ultimately she was tortured because the torturers had the freedom to torture without facing any consequences.
Nora Mislem’s story is not unique. Unfortunately she is one of many thousands of women, mothers, daughters, sisters and human beings around the world who carry the scars of torture with them every day of their lives. Her story is the story of torture. The Bush Administration has now made all Americans characters in the story of torture.
One of the participants at today’s teach-in made the point that the wrong discussion to have is whether torture as an interrogation technique works or not. That is irrelevant. Torture should not be allowed because it makes monsters of the torturers. When the Bush Administration decided that torture was acceptable, it dehumanized the Americans who are charged with practicing it. It dehumanized us as a people. In the 1980s the United States turned a blind eye when our allies practiced torture – today we have imported the practice and made it our own. Is this the nation we want to be?
Tomorrow, June 26th, has been designated by the United Nations as the International Day in Support of Survivors and Victims of Torture. There will be many events marking the day. After the events are over, many of us will move on with our lives. Occasionally we will rise in opposition to torture and hope our efforts will some day end this evil practice. In time Nora Mislem’s story will likely fade from our memories. However, for Mrs. Mislem and other survivors, torture is a lifelong tragedy. For her and for the thousands of others who continue to suffer torture we as a nation need to become human again.
Events in Washington DC marking the 9th Annual U.N. International Day in Support of Survivors and Victims of Torture: