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Governments, Torture, and Jacobo Timerman

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These days political torture is being much examined in the news: its use by the recently defeated Republican Party team of George Bush, its purposes, its physical effects on those tortured, its success (or lack of same) as an investigative device. Questioning and torture, we have learned, frequently go hand in hand, and Jacobo Timerman knew quite a bit about that.

"Are you a Jew?"

A colonel in the Argentine army asked this question of Timerman, a world-renowned journalist who by 1979 had been incarcerated and systematically tortured by the Argentine government for two and a half years, although charged with no crime. It was the very first question that he was asked by the tribunal of military officers that had finally been formed to enquire of Timerman about his activities as a journalist. It was the first such hearing he had as a prisoner.

Timerman was the founder of the independent Buenos Aires newspaper La Opinión and had long taken the editorial stance that extremism, whether from the Right or the Left, is dangerous to — and dismissive of — the general populace and therefore unacceptable. In 1979, a right-wing military junta had been in power in Argentina for more than five years, and the left-wing terrorist gang Los Montoneros had been battling against the junta, using kidnapping, murder and extortion as means to extend that battle. Timerman had savaged both sides equally in his paper.

Timerman was somewhat different from most of the many thousands being tortured by the Argentine military junta, the leader of which was General Jorge Rafael Videla. Timerman was a Jew. "[A torturer] could hate a political prisoner for belonging to the opposite camp,” he wrote, “but one could also try to convince him, turn him around, make him understand his error, switch sides, get him to work for you. But how can a Jew be changed? That is hatred: eternal, interminable, perfect, inevitable. Always inevitable."

So Timerman was in the position of being deemed worthy of torture for his political views, although in the end it was not those views that had actually brought him to that point in his life. It was his birth, and the cultural weight that a Jew must always bear simply because he is a Jew. In the end, Timerman believed, his political views were really just the excuse for his arrest. It was his being a Jew that was his real crime. This in a country that has an enormous Jewish population, second in the New World only to that of the United States.

Ultimately Timerman was released, although at the price of his Argentine citizenship, all his possessions in Argentina, and his deportation with his family from that country. At the time, he was one of the most famous political prisoners in the world, the beneficiary of world public outrage against the Argentine junta for its treatment of its own citizenry.

The book he wrote about his experiences is titled Prisoner Without A Name, Cell Without A Number. It is one of those accounts — and there aren’t many of them — of the coercive imprisonment of a truly fine writer, as rendered by that writer. Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol is one; Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul On Ice is another; Brendan Behan’s Borstal Boy is a third.

Timerman’s book is a direct and detailed account of what it’s like to be in such a place and to be tortured. The state of the emotions is always extreme in such a situation, and you will not find a sadder chapter than the first one in this book, in which Timerman describes what it meant to him to be able to see the eyes of another prisoner in the cell opposite his. They saw only each others’ eyes because the only view they had of the outside was through the small sliding panel in the iron door to each of their cells. Timerman didn’t know who the other prisoner was, and vice-versa. Yet they were able to see each others’ eyes, and Timerman writes a description of what this other man meant to him in a place in which the only real human contact was with the guards and the torturers. It is a short essay that describes profound affection, and is so beautifully done that the reader learns precisely — and painfully — what such imprisonment can do to the emotions.

Timerman also includes in this book his analysis of the nature of totalitarian governments. He makes it clear how important the German Nazis’ beliefs and methods were to the Argentine military junta, just 30 years after the Nazis had been erased, he had thought, from the world. There is only slight comparison in the contemporary United States to such a dilemma, but the post-9/11 reasons we heard from the likes of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld for why torture is justified — that there is a clear and present danger to our society, that the Geneva Conventions are a quaint idea that have no applicability in this new kind of confrontation, that for national security’s sake, political authority must be concentrated in a powerful executive who will act pre-emptively on the dangers at hand despite restrictions spelled out in the law — could have come from Timerman’s torturers. He heard such reasoning with numbing repetitiveness when he was being tortured, and found it achingly familiar, having read about it in his exhaustive studies of the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews.

I would expect that many of the current and past prisoners at Guantánamo would recognize these utterances as well. Just as a Jew cannot undo the fact of being Jewish, the prisoners there cannot undo the fact of being Muslim. The slight comparison I mention includes the role of racism in the decision to use political torture.

It was Timerman’s particular fate to witness political cruelty very close up. It’s in his writing about his personal observations that I find his book most effective and most distressing. “Of all the dramatic situations I witnessed in clandestine prisons,” he writes, “nothing can compare to those family groups who were tortured often together, sometimes separately but in view of one another, or in different cells, while one was aware of the other being tortured. The entire affective world, constructed over the years with utmost difficulty, collapses with a kick in the father’s genitals, a smack on the mother’s face, an obscene insult to a sister, or the sexual violation of a daughter. Suddenly an entire culture based on familial love, devotion, the capacity for mutual sacrifice collapses. Nothing is possible in such a universe, and that is precisely what the torturers know.”

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