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Stephen Gottlieb: Dr. Said And The Struggle Against Torture

A meeting of former Peace Corps volunteers in Boston closed, as do many meetings, with an awards ceremony. We gave a standing ovation to Dr. Mohamud Sheikh Nurein Said from Kenya. Dr. Said had dedicated much of his career to helping the victims of torture, working with the International Red Cross as well as Kenyan organizations, and as president of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims.

Dr. Said worked with the victims of torture from a number of the brutal conflicts that have roiled the world in our lifetimes. He was moved enough as a human being and as a doctor that he sought ways to ameliorate the suffering.

Martha Huggins used to teach at the University at Albany. Before she left to take another position, she gave a talk at Albany Law about torture. She had studied the people who inflict torture. I had to look away. Hannah Arendt described the banality of evil in writing about Eichman in Jerusalem. Martha Huggins echoed Arendt in describing how people got used to inflicting torture, how they differentiated between what they called “good” and “bad” torture, but not the evil of torture. Torture corrupts the soul.

I know people who have been tortured. You may too – there are many refugees in this area for whom torture is a memory they try to repress. I try not to say anything that would remind them. Dr. Said looked into the face of evil and found ways to bring some humanity to the victims.

What struck me at the awards ceremony in Boston was that we define the problems of our age by what we struggle against. I grew up thinking that torture marked uncivilized times, thousands of years ago, certainly no later than the  Middle Ages. Sadly I realize I was totally mistaken. Isabel Allende wrote painfully but eloquently  about torture in her native Chile in our own lifetimes. I desperately wanted to put her book down rather than go through  those awful scenes but was too invested in her people to turn away.

Her story could have been told about Argentina and Brazil. It could have been set in Central America or told about nations of the Far East. It has been told about the Nazis and Stalinists. 

Perhaps most distressing for me, our own country has participated in torture. We tortured at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Further back, we tortured in the Philippines. At the highest ranks of our government, people still try to justify torture.

Where do we get the arrogance to recite in our daily pledge of allegiance in our schools and stadiums that we live under God while claiming the right to torture others. Surely that is using the name of the Lord in vain – a violation of either the Second or Third Commandment depending on how it is numbered in our faiths.

Where do we get the arrogance to claim that we can be safe while claiming the right to violate the rules of war, the rules of the Constitution this country claims to honor, the rules of human decency and the religious obligations we profess?

I pray that Dr. Said can spend his remaining years curing people's illness from natural causes, and no  longer need spend his time curing people from the evil that lurks in the hearts of mankind.

Steve Gottlieb is Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School and author of Morality Imposed: The Rehnquist Court and Liberty in America. He has served on the Board of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and in the US Peace Corps in Iran.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.