In 1966 Jean Améry published a startling book, Beyond guilt and atonement. His central chapter, “Torture,” talks about that experience he suffered in the Breendonk fortress, Belgium, in 1943, before being deported to Auschwitz. I don’t know any other testimony or any other reflection of that depth that survival exercises, by Jorge Semprún, published in 2012, after the death of its author.
Torture belongs to the most extreme and gratuitous violence. It is not of the order of the “banality of evil”, where, as Arendt and Anders showed, industrial and bureaucratic devices mediate, but of “radical evil”: the direct will, says Kant, to harm another and act against the maxim universal of morality: take care of life. Despite millennia of civilization, its practice, at least in Mexico, proliferates and is sometimes exhibited as a testimony of power. Whoever has suffered it and survives is forever mutilated, alienated from life. “Never again,” says Améry, who ended up committing suicide in 1978, “will he be able to feel at home in the world.” Its consequence is a form of absolute exile, a way of being dead in life, carrying death with oneself, says Semprún.
The experience of torture, like the murder that sometimes happens after it – the bodies found in the thousands of clandestine graves with which the country is plagued, are its horrendous testimony – is, therefore, incommunicable. In front of her, her words, Améry says, run the risk of blurring and trivializing her. No matter how penetrating, profound, and cathartic the linguistic expression of it may be, there is no way to bridge the abyss. Its consequences are so deeply personal that common language is incapable not only of containing them, but of exorcising them. Perhaps the most explicit image of this impossibility is the body of Christ that is resurrected with the indelible traces of his torture. There is something infernal, as irremediable, in torture.
Why, however, does anyone torture? By sadism, says Améry, not in the pathological sense with which psychology usually understands it, but in that of Sade: a will to upset the order of the world, to invert it, as if, at some moment, a kind of sovereign power was trigger to affirm itself in the radical denial of the other. Not an accident, but a choice and a learning whose strange pedagogy is the destruction of any imagination and feeling. A “learning – writes Víctor García Salas, quoting Sade – not to feel compassion”; to immunize oneself “from the pain of others.”
Perhaps, among the dozens of interviews that have been done with this type of beings, the most disturbing is the confession that in 1984 Andrés Antonio Valenzuela, a torturer during the Chilean dictatorship, made to Mónica González, a Causa journalist, which serves as the basis to the novel by Nona Fernández, The unknown dimension. Valenzuela is not a criminal whom a sociologist interviews in his desire to understand – if possible – the mind of an imbecile. He is, on the contrary, a repentant torturer, someone who carries a guilt that he seeks to atone for. What is disturbing about his testimony is not the way in which he began the horror nor the fact that from that moment on he could not refrain from doing so. Both are experiences found in most of these soulless people. The terrible thing is that from the moment he chose to do it, redemption became impossible for him: he stopped feeling.
Just as the tortured person is, as Améry says, an exile from the world, an inhabitant of hell, the torturer is doubly so: he has lost his link with the sensible. Even when, like Valenzuela, he has ceased to exert horror, his existence remained trapped in darkness. If rationalism had not exiled from its knowledge the dimensions of the spirit and poetry as a knowledge beyond the obvious, it would have to be said that the torturer belongs to the universe of the pure demonic and hell; that of absolute darkness and muteness without return. From the moment he mutilated a fellow man, he mutilated himself forever.
Perhaps the hell of the tortured is, contrary to Améry’s assertions, provisional; and the word, as Primo Levi and Semprún showed, the place where, even in the incommunicable of evil, something of what is broken is repaired; Perhaps, as the resurrection promises, the tortured person, who could not survive and lies in the underworld of a grave, will be, even in the indelible evil in his body, recovered to life. What, however, is true, is that the torturer is condemned to his hell. Nothing can save him, because he himself is his own prison and his own condemnation. There is no forgiveness that can overcome what one day chose and destroyed his humanity.
The most serious thing, however, is that its existence is part of a collective agreement. If Mexico has become that hell, it is because the majority tolerates it. When we treat the phenomenon as a matter of figures and isolated cases; When we do not demand a clear policy of truth, justice and reparation as a priority on the national agenda, we are not only complicit in its existence, we become part of a shameful moral amnesia. “I am overwhelmed by collective guilt,” Améry wrote on behalf of all the victims. The world that forgives and forgets has sentenced me and not those who murdered or allowed the murder to occur.”
Furthermore, I believe that the San Andrés Accords must be respected, the war must be stopped, all political prisoners must be released, justice must be given to the victims of violence, governors and criminal officials must be tried, the murder of Samir Flores, the massacre of the Le Barón, stop the megaprojects and return governability to Mexico.