On Tuesday, Nov. 12, students trickled into the Black Ballroom for a dinner discussion on the controversial topic of torture. The Political Awareness Committee PAC invited Professor Kristina Thalhammer of the political science department and Bob Kohler from The Center for Victims of Torture CVT, a nonprofit organization that offers relief and healing for immigrants who have been tortured, to lead the discussion.
The session began with an activity called the “Ladder of Torture Puzzle,” a way for the students to express their feelings toward the issue of torture. There was a series of hypothetical situations that involved terrorists planting bombs in densely populated areas. Students then had to decide in which cases torture could be employed to discover where the bombs were. Many of the students said that they would not torture the culprits for any reason; others disagreed.
Thalhammer discussed the political aspects of torture: where it happens, how the U.S. does not publicly promote it and how it hurts the country engaging in the torture as well as the victim.
“The idea of social capitalism is undermined by torture,” she said. Thalhammer also said a few words about how torture canaffect a country’s reputation.
“It can damage credibility and prestige,” she said.
She also explained that torture does not normally result in reliable information. According to Thalhammer, victims are often in so much pain that they will say anything to make the torturers stop, regardless of whether or not what they say is true.
Thalhammer also brought up the federal law that the U.S. introduced in 1984 prohibiting any form of torture in U.S.-sponsored military campaigns. No one is exempt from this law. No army officer, soldier or general can instigate torture of suspected enemies for any reason. But, as Thalhammer pointed out, the U.S. government can be hypocritical in that department.
After the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. government began its lengthy pursuit of those responsible for the attacks. Allegations have since come up that in its search for terrorists in the Middle East, the army tortured many people to find the leaders.
“We are part of an international community, but we live in an international anarchy,” Thalhammer said.
Next, Ben Kohler came up to the podium to discuss his work with the CVT. The organization was founded in 1985 as an outpatient counseling center in St. Paul, Minn. However, over the years it has expanded into a full-scale treatment organization with centers across the U.S., as well as two in Kenya, one in Jordan and one in Ethiopia.
The CVT now sends employees to the centers abroad to train local residents in the process of helping torture victims heal.
Kohler spoke about some of the ways the CVT helps victims. It offers counseling services, psychological evaluations, help for those seeking asylum in the U.S. and a safe place for immigrants who have been tortured.
Kohler turned on his computer and gave the audience a virtual tour of the main facility. It was an old mansion with a garden full of flowers, big windows in every hallway and room, warm overhead lighting and artwork scattered throughout the building. These details are meant to keep the center from resembling torture chambers in any way, thereby promoting an environment of consolation and healing.
Kohler continued his speech with a story about two people sitting on the bank of a river. Suddenly, they see a man floundering in the water. Once they pull him out and start tending to him, they see another person drowning, and then another. The two friends rescue the victims and try to help them. As they do that, one of the friends gets up and runs upstream to try and find out what happened to the victims.
Kohler connected that story to the duties of the CTV and the U.S. The CTV is to stay behind and help the victims recover from their ordeal, and the U.S. should go out and put an end to the torturing.
“As Gandhi said, ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world,'” Kohler said.