Long afterward, I was invited by the Commanding General to tour the War Crimes prison underground. I found what I expected—cleanliness, order, isolation—and was surprised by the number of criminals left alive.
“Capital punishment is a harsh reality,” the General informed me. “It would be wrong to execute so many.”
“Some would disagree,” I offered, aware that my grandfather had suffered unimaginable torments as a POW.
The General nodded but didn’t make eye contact. I could tell he was mulling something over, so I waited, thinking about the drastic precautions of our security. The grey walls were eighteen feet thick, and we were four stories below the surface. I could feel the mass of concrete and rock pressing around and down and toward us, like we were in a fist of earth and could never escape. I shuddered.
The General noticed my discomfort, and it brought him back to the present moment. He had been deliberating, and was now ready to offer me more than I had originally requested. “I’m going to show you something few ever see…it’s special.”
I started to ask, but he shook his head—just a twitch, following his eyes—so I shut my mouth and followed him to the elevator. We went down. There were no numbers, so it’s impossible to say how far, but it was long enough to notice I’d lost reception on my cell; long enough to begin thinking about when I last ate something or had water; long enough to count the tiles on the floor—eight, and two halves—and the badges on the General’s shoulders—four, if you counted the stripes as one.
When the elevator stopped, the General placed his thumb over a pad and stated his name. The doors opened and two MPs saluted. The General whispered “Eva Braun,” to the guard on the left and both MPs moved aside. I wasn’t supposed to have heard, and a sharp glare from the General reminded me to pretend I hadn’t.
We walked down a long corridor with doors on either side. Each door was glass and I could see the prisoners inside. They were impossibly old. Most sat at desks, but a few sat on the edge of their beds. One stood. They read. They wrote. The man who stood was singing, but the glass was too thick for me to make out which song. It sounded like a hymn. Despite their age, the men—they were all male—looked healthy.
Until we got to the room at the end of the hall.
A wall, perhaps sixteen feet wide and eight feet tall, terminated the hallway. Like the doors, the wall was made of glass and I could see every inch of the cell, though the lighting was strange. Small, low-watt bulbs turned off and on intermittently, randomly, in haphazard locations around the room. One was under the chair near the desk. One was above the pillow on the bed. There was a pair of lights that alternated off and on with no discernible sequence, in the middle of the floor, and another in one ceiling corner.
Before I could ask, the General explained. “It’s disorienting. We want him uncomfortable.”
“Don’t you know?” I indicated that I did not, but before the General could reply the prisoner looked up and saw us for the first time. He whimpered, scrambling back into the corner and covering his face with his hands. He curled, protecting his genitals with the heels of his feet. At least, I thought that’s what he was doing, until I realized his bare feet were deformed.
The General told me the prisoner’s heels had been amputated, to limit his mobility. As he explained, the prisoner wailed—such a keening, awful sound. Like the sadness of whales. I have never heard anything more heartbreaking.
“Can’t you do anything to ease his suffering?” I asked, struck by his advanced old age. “He must be over a hundred years old?”
“Today is his one hundred and twenty-fifth birthday,” the General replied. “The men will soon bring him his present.”
And they did. Six men in military uniforms emerged from the elevator, as if on cue, and marched down the hall. Smiling. Each one held a briefcase, and with a nod from the General, they sidled past us and proceeded into the glass cell. The prisoner began to cry, his bent back scraping against the far wall as he heaved. His shoulders drooped so low, I thought for sure his muscle had atrophied beyond any reasonable repair. The man was a plastic bag, pitiful as trash left in the rain.
The soldiers opened their briefcases and began pinning the contents to the walls. New lights emerged from the ceiling and spotted the contents. One was a car crash, complete with autopsy report and graphic photographs. Another was a school fire. Two were unsolved homicides. The fifth was a failed human trial to cure AIDs. The sixth, and final, set of documentation showed a mother on an operating table. She and her twins had died during childbirth.
The soldiers sounded off, explaining to the prisoner the significance behind each set of documents. I could not hear them, over the hysterics of the old man, but I was able to piece it together.
“They’re his family,” I said aloud, struggling to make sense of the cruelty. The General didn’t reply.
At turns the prisoner laughed-wailed, then sobbed, then cackled and coughed. His mind was broken like his body.
“How can you justify this?” I asked my host. “This is inhumane.”
“Don’t you know who this is?” The General replied, angry. His face reddened and his eyes grew wide. “Have you forgotten what he did to our people? To our country?”
“I have no idea who this man is—nor does it matter! This—what you’re doing—you’re perverting…yourself. What happens when you devote your life to torturing another human being—”
I was about to go on, but the next vignette stopped me cold. I had heard of the evils inflicted in war, and I had read about the psychological effects of long-term abuse. I had written op-ed pieces about degradation and power manipulation, but nothing could ever have prepared me for the sight of six patriotic youths raping an old man.
I threw up.
The General knelt beside me, eyes softening. He offered a handkerchief and put his arm around me. We stood. I wiped my mouth, still wishing for a drink of water. The old man had lost consciousness as the soldiers concluded their visit with a beating.
The General turned my face away from the cell. “This isn’t torture,” he explained. “This is justice.”
My stomach heaved, and I tried again to contain it. I was successful, on account of the handkerchief, and looked askance at my host. “How can you call yourself a man?”
He blanched, suddenly sensitive. “Don’t you know who this is?”
“It doesn’t matter. The only monster here is you—”