The other day Janna went into one of the local shops in our Jersey City neighborhood to buy some food. Janna is Deaf and she usually chooses not to use her voice with strangers because if you use your voice then you are expected to vocally communicate on both sides of the conversation and that puts her at a disadvantage when it comes to understanding what is being spoken by a large immigrant population with many accents and unique vocalizations that are impossible to always comprehend and interpret.
Janna prefers to gesture and mime with most people she does not know because the communication barriers are more equally shared. When Janna was in the store she motioned with her hands that she wanted to know the price of the item on the counter by pointing at it and shrugging her shoulders.
The Middle Eastern guy behind the counter yelled at her, “Why don’t you use your voice?” Janna, born in Iowa, is now used to that kind of yelling on the East Coast, so she pointed to her ears and shook her head.
“What? You don’t hear me?” The guy was getting agitated. Janna shook her head. “Why don’t you talk? Talk! Say something!” Janna shook her head. “Why? You don’t have a tongue? SHOW ME YOUR TONGUE!” Janna shook her head and left the store. “SHOW ME YOUR TONGUE!”
When Janna came home she was upset as she told me about her awful cultural and verbal assault. The guy in the shop who demanded to see Janna’s tongue obviously wanted to know if she had been punished by having her tongue cut out of her mouth. Removal of the tongue as a punishment for lying or speaking against a regime in power is one of the most horrible forms of torture. In Iraq:
Thousands of people are missing in Iraq, victims of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, but a more visible legacy are the parts that are missing from people who survived. Missing eyes, ears, toenails and tongues mark those who fell into the hands of Mr. Hussein’s powerful security services. … Farris Salman is one of the last victims of Mr. Hussein’s rule. His speech is slurred because he is missing part of his tongue. Black-hooded paramilitary troops, the Fedayeen Saddam, run by Mr. Hussein’s eldest son, Uday, pulled it out of his mouth with pliers last month, he said, and sliced it off with a box cutter. They made his family and dozens of his neighbors watch.”I thought they were going to execute me,” said Mr. Salman, sitting on the floor in his family’s small house in a run-down neighborhood of the capital a week after being freed by a frightened prison warden as Americans took control of the city. ”When one of the fedayeen said they were going to cut my tongue out, I said, ‘No, please, just kill me.‘ ” … ”I was standing and they told me to stick my tongue out or they would shoot me, and so I did,” Mr. Salman said.
”It was too quick to be painful but there was a lot of blood.” … Moaed Hassan, the owner of the tea shop outside of which the deed was done, said the fedayeen officer who cut the tongue held it up to the crowd and shouted, ”You see this? This will be the fate of anyone who dares insult the president.” He then threw the bit of flesh on the ground; another fedayeen officer scooped it up and said it would be given to Uday Hussein as a present.
Torture of the tongue is not limited to the Middle East as a means of punishment. The tongue is a valued totem of torture in other parts of the world, too. From Chile:
“They tell how the Chilean military – trained and financed by the United States – tortured people with electric shock, particularly on the genitals; forced victims to witness the torture of friends and relatives (including children); raped women in the presence of other family members; burned sex organs with acid or scalding water; placed rats in women’s vaginas and into the mouths of other prisoners; mutilated, punctured, and cut off various parts of the body, including genitalia, eyes, and tongue; injected air into women’s breasts and into veins (causing slow, painful death); shoved bayonets and clubs into the vagina or anus, causing rupture and death.”When Elba maintained that she did not know him, they said, “Let’s see” — they pulled out his nails, cut off his remaining ear, cut out his tongue, gouged out his eyes, and killed him slowly as she watched, thinking, “He could be my son.”
An officer of [President] Lucas Garcia’s army of murderers ordered the prisoners to be paraded in a line. Then he started to insult and threaten the inhabitants of the village, who were forced to come out of their houses to witness the event. I was with my mother, and we saw Patrocino; he had had his tongue cut out and his toes cut off. The officer jackal made a speech. Every time he paused the soldiers beat the Indian prisoners.
“Rosa had her breasts cut off. Then they cut into her chest and took out her heart. The men had their arms broken, their testicles cut off, and their eyes poked out They were killed by slitting their throats and pulling the tongue out through the slit.“
The cutting of tongues from their mouths is a horrible and irrevocable torture and when we mix cultures in a giant American melting pot we are sure to create false assumptions and act on discriminatory information but that’s the price we all pay for free speech. In America you can yell at a woman and demand to see her tongue and not risk having your own tongue sliced from between your lips as punishment for inhuman cruelty.
Janna is not one to be discouraged and the next day she went back into the same store. She resisted the temptation to stick out her tongue and blow a raspberry at the same guy behind the counter. She picked out a package of gum and placed it on the counter and waited. The guy who demanded her tongue the day before stepped away from the register. He sat on a stool in the corner and knocked twice on the back wall.
Another man came out from the back of the store to smile at her and to exchange gestures with her and to ring up her purchase and to bid her a good day. Janna left the store victorious in her culture and intact in her hidden tongue.