The Wounded Torturer

(This is Neil.) I’ve been tasked with keeping you “edified” for a week or so while Todd is on a family road trip. (At least I don’t have to keep you entertained.) I won’t be able to be anywhere near as prolific as Todd has been, but I do hope to put up some new material on each weekday. There will be a conspicuous absence of astronomy and cell phone pictures, but I will try to post on liturgy relatively often – for the sake of blog consistency, if nothing else.

“The Wounded Torturer” is the obviously Nouwenesque name of an article by the Orthodox writer Frederica Mathewes-Green in the summer 2007 issue of The Review of Faith & International Affairs, whose contents are devoted to the interrogation of torture. Elsewhere in the journal, the noted political scientist John C. Green tells us that a 2006 survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press revealed that 45.5% of the American public held a “permissive” view of torture – they accepted that the practice of torture was “sometimes justified,” if not “often justified.” 47.5% of Catholics held such a “permissive” view. (The number drops to 42% of Catholics who attend worship every Sunday, but Green says that the coefficient for weekly attending Catholics loses its statistical significance when one adjusts for the age and gender of this population.)

Frederica Mathewes-Green writes about only two people, both Romanian Orthodox clerics: the recently deceased Fr George Calciu, who was her spiritual father, and Fr Roman Braga, spiritual father at the Dormition of the Mother of God Monastery in Rives Junction, Michigan. Both men were horrifically tortured in the prison at Pitesti, victims of a project to break and rebuild them into ideal “Communist men.” The accounts of the torture visited upon them are depressingly familiar – we read of the infliction of systematic pain and isolation, as well as the forced violation of deeply-held taboos. They were forced to endure and even commit blasphemies. Fr George admitted that he gave way under the torture, out of his mind with pain.

And then we realize the real and lasting damage of torture: the ultimate “silencing” of its victims through internalized fear, shame, and confusion. Fr George said, “When you were tortured, after one or two hours of suffering, the pain would not be so strong. But after denying God and knowing yourself to be a blasphemer – that was the pain that lasted … We forgive the torturers. But it is very difficult to forgive ourselves.” Fr George was unable to write a memoir of his experiences because his words would turn into “madness” – “Everything was mute and absurd” – before a curse or blasphemous song would resound in his mind “with a painfully striking character and with a reality more real than it was then.”

The priests also remind us that, despite what we might think, “being a torturer was so much more painful and soul-destroying than being a victim.” Fr George was forced to participate in the “re-education” of others, and he said, “It was during this part that the majority of us tried to kill ourselves.” A very dark process is usually required to make a torturer – an identity is built up and then obliterated to be replaced with another, one’s past is violently erased to permit an absolute belonging to the army or a group, or constant combat causes the logic of warfare to be completely internalized.

Frederica Mathewes-Green suggests that we are often more psychologically damaged by harming others than by being harmed personally, even if the violence is socially sanctioned or occurs in self-defense. She quotes from Dan Baum’s articles in the New Yorker about injured veterans at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. The veterans could speak about what had happened to them, but were “silenced” by the violence that they themselves had committed: “They could talk about having their arms or legs blown off in vivid detail, and even joke about it, but as soon as the subject changed to the killing they’d done, a pall would settle over them.”

From their nightmarish experience, the two priests learned about the importance of an “inner perspective” only received in the depths of prayer. In their fragility, they grasped the importance of God’s forgiveness. They also sensed the presence of the devil. When asked if he could forgive his torturers, Fr Roman said, “Those who do not forgive become victims. I embraced my torturers, once I saw that they were controlled by the devil. The devil is real, not a bedtime story.”

Frederica Mathewes-Green asks us to consider a devil who is not a lurid “cartoon character,” but rather a “vicious malevolence who gorges on human suffering.” “The person,” she says, “who feels an inner compulsion to acts of sadism is not being driven by human nature.”

(For more reflections on torture, from which some of my above comments are derived, see my post here.)

Comments are always welcome.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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