A Letter to President Obama re: Torture

Amnesty International is Sending Ten Letters to President Obama re: Torture, this is one of them.

To President Barack Obama
The White House
Washington, D.C.

From Alice Walker
Temple Jook House
Mendocino, CA.

June 27, 2009

Dear President Obama,

If word reached me that you were being tortured, I would instantly feel tortured myself, because I would be. Torture is something an entire society feels, whether we are within earshot of the screaming or not. People don’t like to believe this, but there is no way human beings can remain unaffected by what is done to other human beings, or even to animals who are not human. If I heard this about you, I would do everything in my power to come to your aid, not simply because I know you to be rare and necessary to our planetary survival, but because you are simply a person, with feelings, aspirations, sorrows and dreams. And you have children. If I were a child and knew my parent was being tortured, day after day, what would I myself become?

It has already been recognized that “confessions” obtained by torture are useless. It is easy to see why. If someone is water boarding you and you think you will never see your little ones again, you would say anything. So would I. It is only in movies, I think, where the “hero” tells the torturer nothing as various body parts are cut, burned, frozen, electro-shocked or pulled out.

If one keeps company with cruel people, one loses, bit by bit, one’s own compassion. This is one of the reasons living in Washington, in the White House, as leader of the United States, is so treacherous. And why I said to you when we met briefly prior to my introducing you to my community in San Francisco, that failure to win the presidency had not insignificant value: you could have a fine life living as a writer, doing and saying what you want, and traveling the world incognito and free. Leadership has its down side, and one of them is who one has to associate with in order to “get things done.” When we look at the destruction, around the globe, caused by prior leaders of our country, and the terrible choices of how to behave, and we look at the White House today and see some of those folks still coming and going; what can I say? It gives us pause.

Ringing in my ears is something I thought I heard you say: America does not torture. And if this is true, now, under your watch, this letter is unnecessary. I also thought I heard you say Indefinite Detention Without Charge was gone with the wind of George Bush’s administration. Was I wrong? Writers, and especially poets, don’t always keep their ears to the political ground, and so we are likely to miss the daily dramas that keep others informed. I hope you are holding steady on these points, because if you are, you are right. The cruelty and injustice of holding anyone indefinitely without charge will not lead to carefree days and guilt-free nights for you or for any citizen of the U.S., and we want those days and nights in order to convince the youth of the world that there are basic human laws protecting their right to grow up without fear of endless detention.

I think about people in prison, being tortured, being bombed, being frightened and starved and humiliated, every single day. Voting for you was one way I felt I could reach out to them, fiction and poetry writing, even protests and arrests, having their limitations. You are the world’s hope for a better, a fairer, day. You have what few leaders of this country ever had: genuine affection and love from the people who elected you. We are good people, too, for the most part. And even if we weren’t, we can be improved by a leadership of compassion, a leadership whose basic human instincts of fairness and decency we can trust to look at the whole story, the entire state of affairs, and not close off any portion of it. A leadership unafraid to hold accountable those responsible for torture and abuse. This is our only hope, actually, to begin to soothe a little of the sorrow in the world. It isn’t a desire for vengeance, because we know vengeance, a karma, is created by Itself; it is instead a need to make right, to make whole again, by demonstrating to an injured and insulted world that we, as Americans, care about the harm other Americans, in our name, have done. We must show above all that we wish to understand our own madness in order not to continue growing and exporting it.

We know your plate is full. And I am always happy to hear of you and Michelle going off somewhere out of town for dinner. (No pun!) Any complaint about the cost is ridiculous: what your time away from your desk does for the world is priceless. You are a Leo/Ox and only someone with your combination of strengths could handle the presidency, which you do with grace. (What can I say? I love astrology!) Even so, it’s too much for one person, or two; I myself favor a council for leading the country, but that is far in the future. Maybe not too far! So, delegate. We need the world to know we don’t accept the behavior as usual of American presidents and others who do horrible things to people, and then retire, wealthy, into memoir writing and golf; as if the disasters inflicted on a vulnerable world never happened. I applaud and deeply appreciate all the good work you are, in fact, doing. It is huge. And beautiful, which I personally resonate with in world leadership. It has a beat. It has a heart.

In closing, I send this poem about torture that I wrote a few weeks ago and posted on my blog, http://www.alicewalkersblog.com

For those who with our taxes die of torture

What is it like
Is it like
Into a bath
Of warm

Is it like
Lying naked
In the
Those first
Of Spring
A winter
Your teeth?

I think
Can be
Like that.
Above all,
Is yours.
It is
A safe

They may
The time
Pulling out
Your terrified
Heart to stop


They will
Can have.

Is yours.

Human being;
Whatever you
Have done.

Your secret.


©2009 by Alice Walker

With loving kindness,
& despite the gravity
Of the subject, Joy,

Alice Walker

From the Ten Against Torture Campaign



  • shaista dhanda

    it is such a wonderful poem..the things related to death..you are really really good ma’am ..well m a student of masters in english literature from agra,the city of taj mahal,india..n my topic is racial identity in the novels of alice walker n toni morrison with special reference to ‘the color purple’ and ‘the third life of grange copeland’ , ‘beloved’ and ‘song of solomon’..
    m nothing infront of you..just want to say i love these novels of yours.never read nethng so powerful..ripping my heart..
    hats off to you
    i hope i get a reply from you

  • willy bach

    Alice, as a fellow poet, I am moved by your poem. I hope that President Barack Obama will be allowed to see your letter and will spend time reflecting on the sincerity and importance of what you have said.

    I hope to learn from you some optimism that we can make a difference. Your approach and tone should get under the armour of any real human being, if they can remember what it felt like to have a conscience.

  • netminnow

    Dear Alice,

    Thank you for the letter to Obama, may it raise his consciousness and thank you for the beautiful poem about something so ugly. It transforms the pain of the tragic to higher purpose. I wasn’t aware of your blog before this, but I will be a regular reader now. Yours in Peace, Ruth

  • netminnow

    Dear Alice,

    Thank you for the letter to Obama, may it raise his consciousness and cause him to act to the good. And thank you for the beautiful poem, it helps transform the tragic and gives us hope. I wasn’t aware of your blog and will be a regular reader now. Yours in Peace, Ruth

  • Tarab Al-Musiqa

    Dear Sister Alice,

    Thank you a million times for having the courage to speak so eloquently and honestly about Palestine. Too often the indigenous inhabitants of this land, the Arabs, are portrayed as savages and subhuman in the Western media. We long for people like yourself who can show that we, are of the same cloth and have the same right to self-determination and safety like anyone on this earth.

    We are not born of a lesser mother.

    God bless you.


  • adaengkantada

    Dear Ms. Walker,
    I loved your novel Meridian. I even wrote about it in my blog.
    This is a very real and heartfelt letter to Mr. Obama. In the Philippines, torture is still very much in vogue among the state forces, which they use against perceived enemies of the state, political activists.
    I am inspired to maybe write a similar letter to Mrs. Arroyo.

    thank you!