Settling Accounts With Torturers

I recently finished A Miracle, A Universe: Settling Accounts with Torturers, Lawrence Wechsler’s 1990 reports on post-dictatorship attempts at truth-telling and justice-seeking in Brazil and Uruguay. Wechsler is mostly an excellent writer; the book is really well-paced and there are sharp little descriptions (“his commanding wreck of a voice”) and insightful uses of poetry. The afterword is overwritten but mostly Wechsler restrains the ego-driven need to assure his readers that he knows what he’s describing is horrifying.

Catholic readers will be especially intrigued at the role of the Church in both countries. The secret documentation project that forms the core of the Brazil section was spearheaded by a Presbyterian minister and a Catholic archbishop. The Church in Brazil was tied both to the powerful and to the powerless. In highly secular Uruguay the Church appears (in Wechsler’s account) both less complicit and less capable of resistance, although we do get one brave Jesuit priest. The political-theological struggles within the Catholic Church surface here and there, especially in conflicts over “liberation theology,” which Wechsler doesn’t actually bother to define or assess. Which is fine, it’s not a “Catholic book.”

Things I noticed:

# the distinction between knowing, which most people in repressive societies already do, and acknowledging crimes. For what it’s worth this distinction also helps make sense of what happens in sacramental confession, I think.

It also reminded me of some of what’s happened as I edit this anthology, “Staying Catholic When You’ve Been Hurt in the Church.” Several essays talk about practical remedies, including how the Church can make it easier for people who have been harmed to receive justice. Some people name the priests, etc, who harmed them. But many don’t. For a lot of reasons, many people just wanted to acknowledge what happened and honestly depict how it shaped their spiritual lives. A couple people mentioned to me that the chance to sit down and write out their story was in itself healing and liberating.

# Part of the Uruguay section describes a prison, Libertad (….that’s the real name), where policies and practices were intentionally devised to break prisoners psychologically. And here’s a thing I really was not expecting–this was not the result of that awful hot-take instinct, the desire to find an “angle”–many of the practices Wechsler cites to show how abusive the prison was, are used today in US jails and prisons. The arbitrary restrictions on and rejections of visitors, the physical separation of visitors and inmates; the selection of cellmates as punishment; the destruction of cherished and hard-won possessions; all of that and more is us too.

# Here and there you see a political ideology of “national security” or “internal security,” fostered in the United States and spread through explicit classroom instruction of the military, begin to shimmer into a religion. Wechsler at one point attributes this religion of violence to the legacy of the Inquisition; that seems like an uncharacteristically silly move for him, since I think in general humans try to hallow violence. (“A good war hallows any cause,” as Nietzsche says.) People generally, across societies and specific religions, link bloodshed and sacredness.

Speaking of explicitly training officers to escalate violence, to kill more than they’d otherwise try to, and to rejoice in killing, here’s one small piece of the “warrior cop” puzzle.

# Jimmy Carter does some good work in this book. John Kennedy sure doesn’t.

# Wechsler never hammers on this, but every time he draws a parallel with Poland under Communist rule it’s really powerful.

#Wechsler is committed to exploring ambiguity and conflict–there’s an especially good section about “ethical” vs “political” frameworks. Do you hold on to uncompromising principle, or do you seek stability and slow progress even at the expense of truth and justice? Do you argue that each human life is of infinite worth, and anyway consequences are always unpredictable so how can you sacrifice principle for some imaginary future? Or do you accept that most human undertakings are compromised by fear and abuse of power, and just try to wrangle a few concessions, a few reasons for hope?

And all of these answers carry dangers, often ironic ones: Ethical stances can become ways for compromised people to purify themselves; political stances can become an ethics of their own, with all the self-righteousness associated with a quest for utopia, even when the “utopia” here is a future where people just calmly accept that they’ll never get justice.

There’s a great sequence in the afterword (written in 1998) where Wechsler describes taking classes through a series of case studies in post-dictatorship reckonings: first they all want truth and justice without compromise, then they see places where the quest for justice destabilized nascent democracies and they say, “Okay, maybe just truth?”, then they see how truth and open files can themselves be abused or become the cause of a frenzy of blame, then they want everybody to forget and move on, then they see how openly-acknowledged truth can heal a society… Wechsler confronts the students with the failures of every rule or norm, every philosophy–and yet he knows that “don’t have any non-negotiables, judge every case by intuition” is itself an ideology, an oversimplification. He holds on to the value of truth-telling, even in the unfixable, unhealable world we all try to inhabit.

# Toward the end Wechsler talks about moving from the concept of individualized, therapeutic healing for specific victims of torture or repression, to political healing of a society. So it is all the more striking that he doesn’t describe any ministry or attempt to reach the torturers. We see one, through the eyes of his former victim, and this former torturer is obviously confused and suffering. There’s a really breathtaking passage in which that former victim describes the forgiveness he extended his torturer: why he did it, why he had to do it himself (no outside agent could do it for him), what it cost him.

But the internal life of the torturer remains opaque. Did anybody try to offer him the healing found in confession and repentance? Can you really heal a society if you don’t even try to heal the killers and the jailers?

The two people who confess Jesus as Lord, when He is on the cross, are a condemned thief and the centurion set to guard the dying, tortured prisoners. In this mirrored confession I think we are supposed to see something of what Christian society is: Felicity the slave martyred alongside Perpetua the aristocrat, the tax collector for the Romans alongside the zealot against them.

There are patron saints of prison guards: Sts Processus and Martinian, who were converted by their prisoners, the apostles Peter and Paul. To bring this back to an earlier point, I’m trying to find out whether there is any specific Christian ministry to corrections officers in the USA. If you know of one, email me . It’s been surprising to me how hard this is to find.

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