Growing up with 9/11 and torture


By Isabel Gutenplan

I was sitting in my basement, watching on a black square television as one after another, the planes flew into the towers, and the city started to burn. I don’t remember my first four birthdays, and I don’t remember my first day of preschool. I don’t remember going to school that day, or watching my dad leave for work. My first memory was of September 11, 2001, with my mother shaking next to me.

I was living in the suburbs of New York City on 9/11, and I had just turned four years old. Perhaps if I was older, I would have been able to fully grasp the shift in culture that came from the event, as well as the fear that drove my country to action. I had barely lived in a world where the United States enforced an anti-torture policy, and I didn’t know it existed until fourteen years later, when I started learning about it at Duke University. Growing up, 9/11 marked a day each year when we remembered those who died, appreciated those who helped, and cursed those responsible. It meant shutting our eyes to what was happening behind closed doors, and accepting what is unpleasant to imagine as necessary for the greater good.

Sitting in my Introduction to Human Rights class, I came to realize just how misguided I was. Even if we discount human rights as a framework for judging it, torture should not be put into practice because it does not work. It is an archaic tool that should have fallen out of favor once professional and humane techniques  for obtaining information were developed. These techniques are based on rapport-building and cultural understanding, rather than coercion, and the professionals that use them are able to obtain credible and actionable information. Torture, on the other hand, can lead to a stream of confessions, but it is nearly impossible to figure out what is grounded in fact, and what was offered up simply to stop the pain. Logically, torture does not make sense. It’s clear to see that torture is an extreme abuse of human rights— both physically and psychologically it severely damages its victims, and its impact on those who carry it out should also be kept in mind. We need to take steps to ensure that torture is repudiated forever.

The prime rationale given by torture advocates is the “ticking time bomb” scenario. In this scenario a captured person is suspected of having key information that would stop the detonation of a bomb or the destruction of a city. It’s easy to latch onto this scenario, which in recent years was popularized by television shows like 24, a series that revolved around this premise. But when a popular fictional television series inaccurately portrays the efficacy of torture on a near weekly basis, the impression left on the the general public, and my generation in particular, needs to be reflected upon. Admittedly, when I think about torture, 24 is the first thing that comes to mind, since it is both entertaining and accessible. Of course, most viewers don’t watch such shows with the express purpose of gaining factual knowledge, but their ideas and values are formed by them nonetheless.

When I was thirteen years old and wanted to start watching Gossip Girl, my mom sat me down and told me I wasn’t allowed to watch it unless I understood that this was a work of fiction, and not an truthful portrayal of how people in the real world act and behave. Most of all, she stressed that my own conduct should not be based upon what I saw on the show. At thirteen, I was guided on how to differentiate between television and reality. So why are policy makers turning to a script from television when it comes to the issue of torture? One of the most troubling things that I learned when researching torture was that young soldiers were using techniques depicted in 24 on men and women who were being detained at Guantánamo Bay.

Media has an incredibly powerful influence on younger populations. In a few short years some of these young people will be the ones drafting and executing policy in regard to whether torture should be ever be used or if it should remain outlawed completely. This is why in popular media accurate portrayals of torture and its efficacy is of vital importance; because at this time the most prominent sources of information we have about this issue are misleading works of fiction.

At four, I sat in my basement and watched the Twin Towers collapse in flames. That first memory will stay with me for the rest of my life. Our country will soon be led by those who never lived in a time when the U.S. held its own elected officials and personnel responsible for torture. It’s a scary thought, but it doesn’t have to be. If provided the right information and the will to do what is right, our country could soon be led by a generation that turns the United States into a human rights leader once again.


Isabel Gutenplan is in her freshman year at Duke University. She grew up in Chappaqua, New York, which is a suburb of New York City. At Duke, she is studying Political Science and Creative Writing, and is also hoping to fulfill the new Human Rights Certificate. Outside of class, Isabel is on the club lacrosse team and is a member of Duke University Union, which is the event-planning club on campus.