The Corrupting Power of Torture

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In Sunday's Washington Post, Ariel Dorfman writes that Americans have a perverse innocence when it comes to understanding the current debate over torture. Torture, he argues, corrupts victim, perpetrator and everyone who turns a blind eye.


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Michel Martin in Washington.

And it's time now for the TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page. In the Outlook section of yesterday's Washington Post, Ariel Dorfman takes on the current political debate over torture.

Many Americans, he writes, share a perverse innocence when it comes to understanding the reality of torture. It could happen to any of us, he argues.

There's a link to his op-ed at our Web site, the TALK OF THE NATION page at

If you want to talk with Ariel Dorfman about the op-ed and about the debate over torture, please do call us. The number is 1-800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. Or e-mail

Ariel Dorfman joins us now from the campus of Duke University where he is a professor. He is the author of Death and a Maiden and Exercising Terror: The Incredible Unending Trial of Augusto Pinochet. Welcome to the program, professor.

Professor ARIEL DORFMAN (Literature and Latin American Studies, Duke University; Author, Playwright): How do you do, Michel?

MARTIN: And thank you so much for joining us. You've written and spoken about this topic before. Is there something that moved you particularly now?

Prof. DORFMAN: Well, you know, I've been surrounded - flooded one might say -by torture victims for over 30 years now, since the coup against Salvador Allende in 1973 - on September 11, 1973, in fact. But I felt that it was almost extraordinary that people would be discussing the practicality of torture.

In other words, whether - not even whether there should be torture, but whether it was good or bad. Whether they were - I just found it extraordinary. I was appalled by the fact that we were measuring whether to have a bit more or a bit less. And so when the Washington Post asked me to write something, I did. I wrote something about the first I had ever seen a torture victim and I took it from there.

MARTIN: Professor, forgive me for asking this. Given that you are attempting to engage, you know, the moral dimension of this issue, but I would like to ask you - if someone had kidnapped your child or a family member and you had under your control someone who knew where he or she was, can you honestly say that you would not resort to any means to save that person?

Prof. DORFMAN: You know, I mean, these hypothetical questions are a little bit perverse, but I think they're worth answering. My response to that is I pray that I would not. I would hope that I would find in myself the strength not to submit and subject to a person who is entirely vulnerable and totally defenseless, extraordinary pain, even for my own gain. I would hope that my compassion towards all of humanity towards that one trembling person in front of me would stop me from doing those terrible things.

My answer is I probably would try to kill that person. I probably would try to kill anybody who would try to harm the people that I love. But I can also pray that I would not. And certainly, you know, I think that we're tested. We're constantly tested about this. Do we believe that when we hurt one person, we inflict damage on all of humanity? We corrupt ourselves? No.

If you're asking me if that would corrupt me forever, the answer is, yes, it would contaminate me. It would damn me forever if I were to engage in that. Maybe I'm willing to take that risk. The question to the American people and to the people around the world is are we willingly decided and determined to create a situation where we are torturing other people in order for ourselves to be more secure. My answer to that is we should not go there.

MARTIN: I think some Americans would say - and not just Americans - but some would say it is not just to be more secure, it is to protect innocence. The question is - and I want you to engage on this further, because you say that torture corrupts more than just the perpetrator, and I'd love for you to hear more on that.

Prof. DORFMAN: It corrupts everybody.

MARTIN: It corrupts everyone, and I want you to expand on that. But I think the issue for Americans is are we willing to sacrifice our own innocence, our innocent peoples' lives - like many of the people who were killed in 9/11 for the sake of our own kind of moral purity.

Prof. DORFMAN: Well, I mean - but the first question we have to speak about is this question of innocence, okay? Because you realize that when you have somebody in front of you, you have no certainty that person knows, really, what is happening, as has happened constantly all over the centuries and has happened just recently where they took a Canadian citizen and the United States sent him to Syria to be tortured, and he was innocent. Innocent, okay?

So the first problem with torture, the basic problem of torture is you do not know what is in somebody else's mind. And in fact, torture is the worst way of extricating how you find that. Most military interrogators - most interrogators will tell you that in fact the best way to get information out of a person is to find a way of making that person feel relatively comfortable and not torturing that person.

Because as I explained in my op-ed piece, when you torture somebody, they will say anything to make you stop. And therefore they will lie. So innocent - but the real question is - here's the question: are you willing to torture an innocent person in order to save other innocent lives? I mean, what is the devil's deal in that?

And what I speak about in my op-ed is I speak about a young man who, in Chile in 1973, was tortured because he had bragged that he had weapons, that he was this big revolutionary, and he wasn't. He was just a fool. He was just a boaster. And they tortured him mercilessly. And he was shivering under the Santiago sun, and he was going to shiver forever because he had been possessed in some sense by a demon. He had been possessed by the indifference of humanity, by the neglect of humanity, by people not caring about that pain.

So again, it's like in the death penalty, they ask are you willing to send 20 guilty people to the chamber, and if one of them is innocent, too bad. No, the answer is you're not supposed to send anybody innocent.

But you know what? I don't think you should torture the guilty, either.


Prof. DORFMAN: I know that's an extreme position, but I don't think you should torture the guilty ever. It has taken us thousands of years to reach international treaties, Geneva conventions, which indicate the way in which we're supposed to treat one another even in the most atrocious times of war. And we're going to throw all that out? I just can't believe it. I can't believe we're even discussing the possibility that it's true. I find it unrecognizable that we're even coming to discuss that possibility.

MARTIN: Let's invite a caller into the conversation. Betsy in Los Caros(ph), California. Betsy?

BETSY (Caller): Well, I agree with you absolutely. And the question to me, an older person who vividly remembers World War II and knew people who came out of the camps, how has America lost its moral…

(Soundbite of typing)

MARTIN: I have no audio.

Prof. DORFMAN: I can't hear.

MARTIN: Okay, I'm sorry, I think we've lost Betsy, Professor Dorfman.

Prof. DORFMAN: I'm sorry. Yes, I couldn't hear her.

MARTIN: I think we've lost Betsy, sorry.

Prof. DORFMAN: Right.

MARTIN: And she - I think her question is one that I think some Americans are asking - I don't feel qualified to say how many - but there are some who feel that America has lost its moral authority. I think that that was part of the argument behind the opposition by some of the senators who opposed the administration's effort to achieve more latitude for U.S. interrogators. How would you answer that question? Do you think that that is true, professor, that America has lost its moral authority?

Prof. DORFMAN: Well, I think it lost it a long time ago, but…

MARTIN: Well, when?

Prof. DORFMAN: Well, I mean, you know, the United States has been intervening in the world and doing terrible things. I mean, half of the torturers in Latin America have been trained by the U.S. in what was called the School of the Americas. So let's not talk - let's not talk about that. Let's talk about what's happening now, you know?

It's very clear that when September 11th, 2001 happened, the world felt an enormous wave of sympathy for the United States, including people who had been victims of U.S. intervention and victims of terrible things that the U.S. has done to them. The U.S. has done good things as well, but that's the truth of the matter.

And that moral authority has been squandered precisely by the fact that you have a president - I can't believe you have a vice president - who say that they are willing to engage in these things in order for America to be safe. You know, we could use - the problem is that those are the same arguments the terrorists use. We have to regain that moral authority and say torture cannot be condoned under any circumstances whatsoever. It's illegal, it's immoral, and it also happens to be useless.

Now I think we shouldn't even be discussing whether it's useless or not, because if something's useless or useful is not the point. It is unethical. It is something which puts our humanity at risk.

MARTIN: Tell me how.

Prof. DORFMAN: It contaminates us because it's being done in our name. It's being done so we can sleep safer. It's being done so we don't have to worry about our children. But the hell to other people's children. It doesn't matter if people are torturing other people.

MARTIN: You think that the utility of it is besides the point, and in a way, do you feel that it's almost wrong to even discuss the utility?

Prof. DORFMAN: Michel, it's a failure of the imagination. We have to imagine what it's like to be in that place, by yourself, whether you're innocent or you're guilty, without habeas corpus, without any recourse. As I say in my Washington Post piece, there is no escape. One person has all the power of the world, the other person has only the power of pain, has only the world of pain there. You can do anything you want to that trembling human being - you can do anything you want. That asymmetry of power is basically something that we have to reject. It can't be…

MARTIN: But Professor Dorfman, please. I do think it is fair to address the question…

Prof. DORFMAN: I'm sorry. Yes.

MARTIN: …of what if the person, that trembling person, has already inflicted great pain on other people? I mean, the people who killed Daniel Berg, the people who killed all these people in Iraq…

Prof. DORFMAN: Then that person must be brought…

MARTIN: The people who sawed off their heads for the purpose of creating terror throughout the country. The people who've planted suicide bombs. What if you know that they have already inflicted pain, and that is the trembling person? Tell me why, then, it is wrong in your view.

Prof. DORFMAN: Because then that trembling person must be put on trial and given all the guarantees that that trembling person did not give to any of us. We are not that trembling person. We're not that person. We are not the people who behead others. We're not the people who decide we are the Gods - we know who should die and who should not. That's why we have laws. That's why we have courts. That's why we have international laws. That's why we have ethical standards. In fact, that's why some of the great religions exist, because they speak about that idea, about the compassion that we feel towards all of humanity - all of humanity.

MARTIN: Professor, I'm going to ask you to take - I'm just going to ask you to pause just one second.

Prof. DORFMAN: Certainly.

MARTIN: I'd like to bring in another caller, but before I do, I'd simply like to take a pause to say you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

I'd like to go to another caller. I'd like to go to Ken in Mocksville, North Carolina. Ken, is that correct?

KEN (Caller): Yes it is.

MARTIN: Ken, what's on your mind?

KEN: I'm a Vietnam veteran, and we did capture several prisoners, and we didn't treat them too well out in the field where we had to keep them under control. But as I understood from people who went to rear areas that they were treated excellently, fed well, educated, and this is the only way you could change fanatics. You have to educate them. You can torture them all you want, you're just going to make more fanatics out of their family, everybody else.

The real point of capturing people is to restrict them from doing more harm. Torturing them for information never has worked. In fact, I was captured briefly, maybe about five minutes in one area, and I kept thinking of all the things they told me about torture: pick your nose, do things to disgust your torturers, but don't give them any information. And this is what's going to happen. You may get some information out of them, but to get useful information, you've got to kill them with kindness. You've got to change them. That's the way I feel about it and a lot of people that served in the military feel.

MARTIN: Ken, thank you so much for your call. And thank you so much for your service, if I may say.

KEN: Well, thank you very much.

MARTIN: Let's go to another caller. Let's go to Mike in Boston, Massachusetts. Mike?

MIKE (Caller): How are you?

MARTIN: Very well, thank you. What's on your mind?

MIKE: Well, I guess I have a little bit of a problem with the moral tone of your guest and the purity of the world. We have - lots of people have problems, and I agree with him that most people will lie or do anything under torture. And even going back to his purity argument, your child is in a bad place and will die if the person who you absolutely know has the knowledge - I think you - most people could, should, would - including countries and governments - do what it takes.

Now that probably doesn't mean just plain old pull their fingernails out or whatever. You have to do whatever the right answer is. But I think it's - I don't feel bad morally to take a position that I need to defend myself. Now I think the Bush administration is doing an atrocious job and annoying the entire world, but I guess I just don't feel the moral imperative that your guest is suggesting, that we ruin ourselves or the society and we've now gone to hell in a hand-cart if we do that.

MARTIN: Mike, thank you so much for your call. And Professor Dorfman?

Prof. DORFMAN: Well, you know, the problem is that I have seen societies go to hell in that way because of that. Because what happens is that first of all, they're torturing, and you say, well I didn't know it, or it's not that much, or it's one rotten apple. You know, there's always justifications for this, and there are reasons why we put a line, a limit, and we say no. This is not to be done. It is not to be done in my name. You don't look away when those things happen.

And you know when they said now the gloves come off, the question is when terrible things have been done to you, how do you respond? That is the basic question of all humanity. It's the most important question of our times. And I'm not suggesting that the way you respond is oh, please, kill me again. Oh please, I'm so soft and weak. It's not that at all. The real courage comes from saying we will bring those perpetrators to trial. We will do everything in our power to do that. We will not engage in terrorist activities against others in order for ourselves to be secure.

MARTIN: Professor, we're down to our last couple of seconds. Professor, we're down to our last couple of seconds.

Prof. DORFMAN: Yes, certainly.

MARTIN: And I wanted to just ask if you could - do you have confidence, or do you have a belief that your point of view is gaining ground? Very briefly, if you would.

Prof. DORFMAN: You know, very briefly, I have got perhaps 500 e-mails, of which perhaps 450 say that they are aghast at what's happening. I believe in the best side and the best angels of America. If you bring people to their best angels, they will see. I can only pray and hope that that is the case.

MARTIN: Thank you so much. Thank you. Ariel Dorfman is the author of Death and the Maiden, and Widows, among other works, and is a professor at Duke University. And we have a link to his op-ed at our Web site, Thank you, Professor Dorfman.

Prof. DORFMAN: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin in Washington.

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