The thick cable lands on the soles of my bare feet. I can't breathe. Panic sets in. But I can't run or defend myself. I'm a 16-year-old girl, tied up to a torture bed in Evin prison in Tehran and the man who's lashing me is very angry.
"Where is Shahrzad?" he yells.
"I don't know!" I cry.
"Where is she?"
"I swear to God I don't know!"
And it goes on and on. Endless agony. There is nothing here but pain. My soul has dissolved into the darkness that is taking my body apart with brute, unforgiving force. I can't count the strikes. I have forgotten how to count. I don't recognize the world around me or myself. This must be hell. I am in hell. I know I am.
The movie Zero Dark Thirty opens with a torture seen, which is not unlike what I went through in Evin Prison in Tehran in 1982, and it wants the audience to believe that it was torture that led to the capture of Osama bin Laden when there are numerous sources within various intelligence agencies in the West, including the CIA, that will tell you otherwise.
Torture is not designed to get information; it is designed to break the human soul. As I write these lines in my home in a quiet suburb of Toronto, tears are streaming down my face. My sobs become louder, and I struggle to control them. I need to take a little break, but I can't afford it, because I know there are, at this very moment, people, human beings, being brutally tortured in many countries around the world. They are helpless, but I am not; I survived. Through my tears, I can't see my computer screen anymore. I almost never cry in public, but here, in the safety of my room when there is no one else home, it is okay to loose control. A part of me is, after 30 years, still in a state of shock, as if that part still inhibits the darkness of Evin prison. I sometimes feel like I am two people; one is drowning alongside many other victims under ice-covered waters, and the other is standing on top of the ice, screaming desperately, trying to get the attention of bystanders, many of whom seem oblivious, uncaring, or simply too afraid to look at reality. Fear is one of the strongest human emotions, and it can make good people freeze into inaction or even do terrible things in the name of self-defense.
I need to collect myself. People are suffering. People are dying. I look to my left to a little shrine that I have created on top of my dresser. There is a cross and a few religious icons. Tears stream down my face. A deep pain crawls through my hands and feet and spreads though my body. To me, the cross is not an ornament or a decoration. It is a tool of torture that stares at me every day, reminds me of who I am, and holds me accountable. I also have a golden cross hanging from a chain around my neck, a constant reminder that I am a survivor of torture. My heart rate is rising. I look at the image of Jesus, staring at me, his mother, Mary, standing next to the cross, distraught. Her hair is a mess. Her eyes swollen from crying. But she stands tall and looks at me. Her eyes carry the agonizing silence that I know only too well, but under this silence, there is a monumental resilience. I look back at Christ. In his tremendous pain, we are connected. This is a bond that cannot and will not be broken. Neither in life, nor in death, and nor in the hereafter.
"Help me..." I whisper.
Blood is dripping down the cross.
"Speak out," He says, "and I will be with you."
We are in this together.
After beating me into a pulp, to a point where I couldn't recognize my feet -- they looked like blue, overblown party balloons with toes on them -- my torturers gave me papers to sign. I signed them without reading them. I would have done anything to get out of that room. A few months later while I was still a prisoner in Evin, I discovered that one of the men who had a hand in my torture had been a political prisoner in Evin prison during the time of the Shah, before the success of the Islamic revolution of 1979. He believed that by torturing the so-called enemies of the revolution, including me, he was delivering justice and protecting Iran's national security. He believed he was the good guy and that his prisoners were the bad guys. And, to him, this justified everything, even acts of evil in the name of God.
The dragon of violence has many heads, and torture is one of them. Since the dawn of human history, violence has created a vicious cycle that has turned victims into torturers and torturers into victims. This dragon cannot be slain with a silver sword, because when you stick a sword in his heart, you have actually given it what it most desires: more blood, more hatred, and more anger. There is only one way to kill this monster, which is to stand up to it, speak out, look at it straight in the eye, and not be afraid.
Depending on our nationality, religion, social standing, culture, experiences, and background, there are those in the world whom we consider our enemies. In many cases, these enemies have hurt us and/or our loved ones. In some cases, they have driven us from our homes. In other cases, they have tortured or raped us. Sometimes, they have attacked our religious beliefs. We have reason to hate them. Good reason to hate them. I was tortured and raped and lost many friends to firing squads. I was forced to convert to Islam from Christianity in order to protect my family. Then I had to leave the country of my birth, Iran, possibly never to return. How much more can be taken away from a human being? Yet, I believe that if I allow hatred to take hold of me, I would remain its prisoner forever and, as a result, serve the darkness I'm trying to conquer. Courage and goodness do not live in guns and tools of torture, and they certainly do not thrive in a heart filled with hate. If one day someone puts a length of cable in my hand and gives me one of the men who tortured me, I will drop the cable. I will hand over my torturer to a justice system that doesn't believe in eye for an eye, I will hire him a good lawyer, and I will make sure that he is kept in a prison where the authorities respect the basic needs of human beings and respect their dignity. I would want my torturers to get a fair trial, which I never got. My torturers had no respect for my dignity, but I will respect theirs. Why? Because they tried to turn me into an angry and dysfunctional individual, but they failed. They will win if I become like them, and I am not ready to allow them to triumph.
Zero Dark Thirty opens with a long scene that glorifies violence and torture and tells us that medieval brutality can make our world a better place and save us from terrorists. However reality points to a very different direction. In an article in Time, Robert Baer, former CIA field agent and author, writes:
[... ] the important thing to remember is that torture doesn't work. When I was in the CIA I never came across a country that systematically tortures its citizens and at the same time produces useful intelligence. The objective of torture, invariably, is intimidation.
[...] the "ticking bomb" scenario [that is] so popular on shows like 24 (and even in recent presidential debates) is a false choice. Any terrorist group capable of carrying off a sophisticated attack knows enough to "compartmentalize" its attack -- the operatives are told only what they need to know. Or the attacks are so closely timed that it is impossible to stop them. For instance, had we arrested one of the 9/11 teams, there would not have been enough time to physically coerce its members into telling us about the other three hijacking teams.
The CIA's 1963 interrogation manual states:
Intense pain is quite likely to produce false confessions, concocted as a means of escaping from distress. A time-consuming delay results, while investigation is conducted and the admissions are proven untrue. During this respite the interrogatee can pull himself together. He may even use the time to think up new, more complex 'admissions' that take still longer to disprove.
Scientists do not pretend to know, in any individual case, whether torture might extract useful information. But as neurobiologist Shane O'Mara of the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience in Dublin explains in a paper in the journal Trends in Cognitive Science called "Torturing the Brain,"
The use of such techniques appears motivated by a folk psychology that is demonstrably incorrect. Solid scientific evidence on how repeated and extreme stress and pain affect memory and executive functions (such as planning or forming intentions) suggests these techniques are unlikely to do anything other than the opposite of that intended by coercive or 'enhanced' interrogation.
Zero Dark Thirty, which has been nominated for five Academy Awards, follows a disturbing, popular trend in Hollywood that glorifies violence and pretends that violence is, in various shapes and forms, including torture, our only way to "save our way of life" and innocent lives. We see the devastating results of this trend everywhere, yet, for various reasons, which include ignorance, hatred, greed, and fear, some individuals fuel this horror in the name of good. Violence can never cure violence, and it condemns our children and us to live in a world that slowly drowns in darkness and cruelty.