JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:
TELL ME MORE has hosted a series of conversations about the torture debate, and today we're speaking with Teresa Wiltz, a reporter who's watched as this controversy has evolved in the media and the public consciousness.
So much of the current dialogue about interrogation and torture was shaped by what the Bush administration called the war on terror. But most of the hundreds of thousands of torture survivors living in America today had nothing to do with terrorism. They were victims of political persecution and corrupt regimes, and Wiltz is one of a number of journalists who feel that they and the lessons of their suffering have been forgotten.
It's something she wrote about in a recent commentary for the online journal, theroot.com. And Teresa Wiltz joins us now in our Washington studio. Welcome.
Ms. TERESA WILTZ (Journalist): Thank you for having me.
LUDDEN: Tell us more about the central argument of your commentary and why you felt the need to write this now.
Ms. WILTZ: Well, I was just getting very frustrated by the tenor of the discourse. When I was a reporter with the Washington Post in 2003, I did a series on torture survivors. There's a group that's based in Washington, D.C., called TASSC, the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition International. And it's helmed by torture survivors from all around the world and basically there to give support for other torture survivors.
There's something like 500,000 estimated to live in this country alone, but they also are activists. They're trying very hard to get torture as, you know, part of any government policy stopped. But being around them was really disturbing because when we talk about torture, we look at it as a one-time thing that happens, and that's it. And maybe it's really painful and it, you know, it's a horrible thing, but it's over, and it's done. And what I learned is that for these people that survive it, it stays with them.
LUDDEN: Tell me about some of the people that you met doing that story.
Ms. WILTZ: One woman that I met was Diana Ortiz(ph), who is an American nun. She at the time was the executive director of TASSC, and when she was a very young woman, just a very young nun living in Guatemala in the late '80s, she was a victim of mistaken identity.
She was thought to be one of the activists during the war there. And she was kidnapped, tortured, raped, just made to do horrific things, and it has had a lasting effect on her. She's become this activist, this strong person, but you know, I went with her to an anti-war demonstration on the mall here as the war broke out, the Iraq War broke out. And she was so shaken and so afraid. She would look up and see snipers on the tops of the buildings. So, you know, so she was there to make a point, but it was at such a great cost because she was reliving the incident all over again.
LUDDEN: So is that what our invasion of Iraq and the war in Afghanistan has done to a lot of survivors? Is it causing them…
Ms. WILTZ: To relive their past experiences? Absolutely, but at the same time, you know, those that are very active, you know, they kind of push through all the anxiety, you know, the paranoia, the PTSD anyway because they feel so strongly about it. But I mean, these are people with lasting psychiatric, psychological problems, many of them.
LUDDEN: It sounds like a hard story to kind of maintain that journalistic distance.
Ms. WILTZ: Very much so. You know, I sat with, you know, grown men, very macho men from the Congo or from Pakistan or whatever, and they would talk to me, and they would start crying and sobbing. And it's kind of hard to keep your distance when you're watching people that are in so much pain.
LUDDEN: How have their stories influenced the way you're experiencing the debate over torture in this country?
Ms. WILTZ: I'm just really frustrated and angry. I think we trivialize it. I think we trivialize it in pop culture. We watch "24" or movies like "Marathon Man," and you know, torture is this kind of, this little erotic charge we get watching the bad guy get his or we sympathize with the hero, but he's strong and he overcomes. And I just find it incredible that we're even debating this as a legitimate tool, you know, in our fight on the war on terror. I just, I find it incredible and disturbing.
LUDDEN: Obviously you're trying to highlight the suffering of these people who went through - I mean, you describe terrible things, I mean, repeated rapes, being cut with machetes, confined in small spaces with rats. You want to highlight that, but are you concerned that because there is this current debate going on that somehow there's a risk that you'll draw some parallel between them and who we've come to think of the victims of torture, which are terror suspects?
Ms. WILTZ: Yes. I mean, you know, these people aren't being put on trial. We really don't know what they've done, and will we know what they've really done until it comes to light in a trial situation? I just think that regardless of who the person is, as a country, if we want to retain the moral high ground, we have no business torturing people.
It's not a reliable source, from what everyone I've spoken with, and I spoke with very many, a lot of people who have been through and experienced this - it's not a reliable source, way to get information. You know, people told me they will tell them anything to make the torture stop. You know, they just - it's not - if it were a reliable tool, and it was truly getting information, but even then I just find it abhorrent.
LUDDEN: So how would you like to see the public debate on torture change in this country?
Ms. WILTZ: Well, I think we should include people who've been tortured and get them involved in the discussion and not have it become this kind of abstraction, which I think it is right now.
LUDDEN: Teresa Wiltz is senior culture writer for theroot.com, and she joined us here in our Washington studios. Thank you very much.
Ms. WILTZ: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.