The issue of torture in our contemporary times

When we think about the issue of torture in our contemporary times, and most people will recall the controversies arising after 9/11, particularly in relation to Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo prisons. American citizens were divided about the use of torture, and the question that often arose during the debates was, “Is it justifiable to torture one human being to save (potentially) the lives of many innocent people. “Just War” principles, a set of moral and ethical guidelines dating back to ancient time and establishing allowable behavior during war, no longer seemed viable in the changing times, according to some politicians and military experts. On the other side, opponents of torture found practices at these prisons to be in violation of international law regarding the treatment of war prisoners, particularly as outlined in the 1949 Geneva Convention.

Playwright Ariel Dorfman engages with these issues in another context, one to which he feels more personally connected. As a Chilean, he witnessed the military overthrow of the elected government in 1973 (interestingly, on September 11th). Dorfman lived to escape the persecution of anyone who rebelled against General Pinochet’s dictatorship. He is now a professor at Duke University (to get a sense of his experience of that fateful day in 73, see this profile).

In this play Death and the Maiden, we witness characters struggle with reconciling their present lives with the aftermath of torture. Paulina was tortured as a civilian who was also working for the rebellion. Her husband Gerardo, a revolutionary about whom Paulina’s torturers sought information, tries to regain the a sense of normal life with his wife and struggles to understand how haunted she is in mind, body, and spirit by the past. When Roberto enters their lives, the past comes crashing into their present lives, and there is no way to keep the search for the truth at bay any longer.

The play raises issues of memory, forgiveness, reconciliation, and revenge on individual and cultural levels . . . and perhaps most importantly, it raises the possibility and the limitations of justice. There is also the all-important question of the survivor’s truth.

What questions does Death and the Maiden raise about evidence, memory, and justice on a personal and cultural level in the aftermath of human rights abuses. How does the play challenge us to think about a culture or an individual’s desire to find truth? What complicates the process of seeking justice? What are the competing values or conflicting perspectives within the play/film in relation to the aftermath? (The characters do not share the same perspectives about their current choices, their roles within the political turmoil of the Pinochet regime, and the ways that the society should reconcile with its painful past.)