Monday, November 26, 2012

Torture as a mind-body split

Leonardo Boff's weekly columns are available in Spanish from Servicios Koinonia and in Portuguese on his blog. Some of his older columns are available in English at

by Leonardo Boff (English translation by Rebel Girl)

With the operation of the Memory and Truth Commission, torture as a systematic means of the military dictatorial state to combat its opponents comes to light in all its barbarity. These processes of dehumanization of the tortured and the torturer have already been studied in detail. It's necessary for them to repress their own humanity to practice their inhuman act. Naturally, many torturers ended up committing suicide because they couldn't endure so much evil.

I, however, want to emphasize a point that isn't always present in the discussion, one which has been well analyzed by psychoanalysts, especially in post Nazi Germany, and among us by Hélio Peregrino, now deceased.

The worst of torture policy is that it forces the tortured one to fight against himself. Torture splits a person in half. It sets the mind against the body.

The mind wants to be faithful to the cause of the companions, not to deliver them up in any way. The body, under extreme intimidation and humiliation, to be free from torture, tends to speak and so do the will of the torturer. This is the split.

But a point of note: the tortured person when he's a prisoner of panic and dread might be a victim of unconscious mechanisms of identification with the aggressor. By identifying with him, he's able to psychologically exorcise the panic for a moment and thus survive.

The tortured one who has succumbed to this desperate self-defense contingency sinisterly incorporates the figure of the torturer. The latter is able to open a breach in the soul of the tortured one, managing to penetrate that last bit of intimacy, where the most sacred secrets reside and where the person feeds its mystery. Therefore he passes the final threshold of human depth to possess the victim and make him into someone else -- someone who ends up acknowledging that he is indeed subversive, an enemy of the country and the human race, a traitor to religion, one cursed by God and excommunicated from the Church, someone who is from the devil. Torturers Albernaz and Fleury were experts in this perversity. Fleury said directly to Frei Tito, as can be seen in Ratton's terrifying film "Batismo de Sangue" ["Blood Baptism"], based on Frei Betto's book by the same name, that he would leave marks on him that he would never forget. Indeed, he was able to to split his mind and body and penetrate his deepest intimacy to the point that, in exile in France, he felt the presence of his executioner at all times. He left a note before taking his own life: "I prefer taking my life to dying."

This kind of torture is particularly evil because it makes dehumanization the axis of a systematic practice of certain agents of the State. If the anti-Christ category still means anything, it must be in this infernal framework. This is the complete subversion of what is human and its sacred references. It is surely one of the greatest crimes of inhumanity that may exist.

Such evils cannot fall under any amnesty. Torturers bear the stigma of Cain in their souls and minds. Wherever they go, life itself will accuse them because they violated its supreme sacredness.

And there is still the torture of the disappeared, which crucifies their loved ones. For example, there was a guerrilla war in the Araguaia River region not fully recognized by the military to this day. All excesses were commmitted there: they cut off the heads and fingers of the dead guerrillas and sent them to Brasilia for identification. They made their bodies disappear. They made lives disappear and now they're attempting to wipe out the dead. And the families are living a nightmare that never ends. Every bell that rings in the house acts like wind blowing on the ashes and rekindles the embers of hope, followed by bitter disappointment: Could it be him, coming home? Others say, "we aren't moving from this house because he could still come back...and what would become of him if we weren't here for the hug, the kiss and the tears?"

The torturers and their bosses are here, now threatened by the Levante Popular da Juventude ("Popular Youth Uprising") movement that doesn't let their consciences alone. As a theologian who was persecuted but not tortured, I want to scream in their ear the cry of Jesus Christ: "Your generation will be charged with the blood of all the prophets, of the persecuted and tortured, of their blood poured out since the beginning of the world. Yes, I assure you that you will be held accountable for this blood."(Lk 11:50-51).

There may be an amnesty agreed upon by men. But there will be no amnesty before conscience and before the One who presented Himself in the guise of a prisoner, tortured and executed on the cross, Jesus of Nazareth, when as the Supreme Judge he will especially judge those who violated minimum humanity. The day will come, the supreme day, when all the disappeared will appear. They will come, as Revelation says, out of the great tribulation of history. Yes, they will return with the Living One. And then there will be no more waiting or agitation in the hearts. The Living One, also tortured one day, will make all distance void, he will wipe away all tears and inaugurate the Kingdom of the sacrificed and disappeared, now living, liberated and found. Then this will be definitely true: "No more dictatorships. No more disappeared. No more torture."

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