THE BLOG
12/18/2014 04:27 pm ET Updated Feb 17, 2015

'Torture' or Torture

Keri Oberly via Getty Images

Last week, when torture reports came out in Brazil and the United States, the few observers who noticed their near simultaneous release picked up on the positive aspects of the symmetry: two large democracies, each with the strength to address their dark sides. In the American case, the Senate report focuses on torture by Americans of foreigners. In the Truth Commission's report, the focus is on Brazilians torturing Brazilians. But both examine a state policy made possible by the highest levels of their respective governments. And there the comparisons stop, almost.

First, a summary of the numbers. According to the Senate Intelligence Committee report, 119 detainees were held in secret prisons, 39 of whom were tortured by the CIA's employees and contractors. Three were waterboarded, almost drowned. Five who refused food or water were subject to an experiment called "rectal rehydration." Forty-seven were held for longer than one year, and 26 of the detainees did not meet the standard for detention established by the CIA itself.

The Truth Commission's categorization is not analogous, but we get a sense of scale. State agents identified as responsible for serious violations: 377. Officially confirmed deaths, 434: killed, 191; disappeared, 243. And the number cited by the Commission of Brazilians tortured during the Estado Novo may have reached the whopping 20,000 between 1964 and 1985.

The contrast in reactions to the two reports is perhaps the most striking. In the United States, we are generally squeamish about even using the word torture. Some frame the word with quotation marks. More frequently, we hear the euphemism "enhanced interrogation techniques." Others are plain defensive, protesting that the CIA was desperate after 9/11 to stop another attack. Still others are aggressively supportive: Dick Cheney told Americans last Sunday that he "would do it again in a minute."

At least we have one Republican national security hawk, John McCain, imploring his party to read the report and preaching the "never again" mantra of one who endured years of torture as a POW in Vietnam. But McCain's unequivocal stance is sadly the exception. Nearly a lone voice in his party, McCain extolled the report because it "strengthens self-government and, ultimately, I believe, America's security and stature in the world." Backing the report's champion Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein, the outrage over the immorality and illegality of torture, and the CIA's accountability problem, have been palpable and relentless, at least among those Democrats not running for president.

Yet my cursory survey of reactions in Brazil to the historic (if delayed) work of the Truth Commission reveals an almost blasé public response. No quotation marks. No euphemisms. No public officials defending the practice. Why? Torture by Brazilian police and security forces is still common. The public still takes for granted mano dura.

In the end, the question remains not one of torture, nor even one of truth, but one of lasting consequences. Not for the victims and the perpetrators, but for citizens of large democracies.

These differences aside, both countries will now face the matter of impunity.

This post was originally published in Portuguese in Folha de São Paulo. It is originally available here.