The Common Good
July 2009

What's Done in the Dark

by Valerie Elverton Dixon | July 2009

Torture leaves wounds that are slow to heal.

Jesus taught, “For nothing is hidden that will not be disclosed, nor is anything secret that will not become known and come to light” (Luke 8:17). In other words: The truth will come out. President Obama was right to release memos describing CIA interrogation techniques that add up to torture. Whether or not those who ordered the torture and devised the legal opinions to justify it will face prosecution remains an open question.

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History shows us that at some point, some way, somehow, the truth comes to light. And the truth is deeper than a list of facts. The truth is facts in context, facts in use, facts and consequence, facts and meaning. Truth is the heart and soul of existence.

History also teaches us the harvest of terror and torture—continued cycles of violence, psychological trauma, and corruption of a national soul. There is no new thing under the sun. The French-Algerian anti-colonial war is an example of what happens when terrorism and torture become tactics of war: The ends never justify the means, and both practices leave deep wounds that are slow to heal. Terrorism caused the French public to become weary of the war, but that same public also became appalled by torture done in their name. And, since the anti-colonial war, Algeria has been plagued by terrorism, which is used as a tactic by factions seeking power.

As for torture, it tormented the torturers. Writing in The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon wrote of the psychological damage the violence caused to those on all sides, including those who inflicted torture. In one case, a European police inspector came to the clinic where Fanon worked for psychiatric help. He had been torturing his wife and children. Fanon wrote: “At home he has a constant desire to give everyone a beating. And he violently assaults his children, even his 20-month-old baby.” The torturer spoke of being worn out by the torture.

The psychological harm happens to American torturers as well. Writing for The New York Times, Scott Shane reports the trauma experienced by those applying and watching torture. One observer said, “Seeing these depths of human misery and degradation has a traumatic effect.”

Moreover, the trauma is not limited to individuals. In the case of the French-Algerian conflict, a scar remains on French society because of its history of torture.

This ought to be a caution for us: Evil knows no boundaries. When we unleash it, even in response to evil, it washes over us all and corrupts. Torture is evil; that is why it is done in the dark. That is why we ought to bring it to light—and hold those who ordered torture in our name to account.

Valerie Elverton Dixon, who publishes at, has taught Christian ethics at United Theological Seminary and Andover Newton Theological School.

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