Those who've endured torture deserve our respect
By Kristi Rendahl
Kristi Rendahl is the organizational development adviser for a project of The Center for Victims of Torture in St. Paul.
When I tell people I work at the Center for Victims of Torture, they sometimes look alarmed. It isn't an answer that fits within their normal patterns of conversation. Their eyes ask, "You mean, like, torture-torture?"
So I say something like this: Yes, torture-torture. The kind of torture that happens systematically, routinely, in conflicts and police stations around the world. That kind of torture. It's just as horrible as it sounds.
But some people need no explanation at all. A couple of months ago, a taxi driver in St. Paul told me he was Oromo. He asked, "Do you know what Oromo is?"
"Yes," I said. "I work at the Center for Victims of Torture."
"Oh," he said. "Then you know something about the Oromo."
A few weeks later I met an Ethiopian man on a flight out of Minneapolis-St. Paul. When he heard where I worked, he nodded solemnly with a pained expression in his eyes. Quietly, he shared some stories of the horrors he'd seen. I wondered how he got those scars on his face.
In many countries — in many of the very places we work — torture is not a criminal act. Those who commit the most vile acts against a human being cannot be held responsible, even if there is the political will to pursue justice. The perpetrators often continue to live down the street from their victims.
Can you imagine leaving your house when you know that such a person might be outside? For that matter, can you imagine going home? I know what fear is, and it's not something I want to live with day in and day out.
And that is the point. Torture is all about fear and control and deliberate destruction. It's genocide of the mind and of the spirit. To understand this way of treating people, you need to divorce yourself from logic. If you approach it rationally, as if there might be value to it, then your mind is likely to become mixed up in a knot as difficult to disentangle as the root ball of a potted fern.
Today is United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. It's a day to remember those who have seen the worst, yet survived. Too many of our neighbors in Minnesota know exactly what this means. Their resilience should be an inspiration to us. Their experience warrants a moment of humble silence.