Torture: A Pillar of American Civilization

I side with Andrew Sullivan in his denunciation of torture, but I contest his attempt to define modern torture as a historical aberration, as if it weren’t common behavior for the United States until George W. Bush rode into Washington.

Sullivan says modern torture advocates are “junking the entire history of Western jurisprudence and the laws of war,” later condemning their “radical assault on one of the central pillars of our civilization.”

The “pillars of our civilization” sit on land stolen from the natives, who we tortured and exterminated, and they were constructed by African slaves, who we whipped and murdered.

This was the situation in America from 1492-1865. At what point, exactly, do we start the clock on Western Civilization?

At the turn of the 20th century, “United States soldiers were torturing Filipinos with water” in a war planners thought “might serve as an effective ‘stepping stone'” to controlling China’s growing markets. In the latter half of the same century, the U.S. was supporting (PDF) Ferdinand Marcos, a Filipino head of state notorious for … you guessed it … torture.

In fairness, torture practices were more radical under Bush, in the sense that his reign saw them “admitted into the mainstream,” (as Sullivan puts it). This doesn’t mean that torture wasn’t widely practiced before, only that influential people didn’t advocate it in public. And, crucially, it wasn’t performed by American soldiers. Instead, we paid others to do it for us.

The result, however, is the same.

Sullivan tries to pin torture on the current G.O.P., but the historical narrative shows us that it’s a long-standing practice. A return to the pre-Bush norm – where torture is illegal but practiced anyway – cannot be the answer.


  1. Ian

    I think a major problem is having intelligence agencies that do things in secret. Then things like torture become out-of-sight-out-of-mind. I think what the Bush administration did was show us that this stuff does happen, and that our government was not ashamed. I would be shocked if the same things weren’t going on throughout the Cold War.

    I wouldn’t argue that every piece of intelligence and every practice be made public (I wouldn’t be opposed). I do, however, think that one’s which violate another human being’s basic right should be made public. There should also be punishment for those who would torture and their superiors who order it or look the other way. I am realistic enough to know that if we did start punishing, the whole operation would go right back underground and you wouldn’t hear about it. We can’t have both secrecy and transparency.

  2. Clint

    I agree about secret intelligence agencies.

    The CIA is a convenient blame magnet for the White House. Once a scandal breaks out, they can just pin it on the CIA and extricate themselves from the muck.

    “if we did start punishing, the whole operation would go right back underground”

    Also true. I think we can reduce instances of torture by not involving ourselves in situations likely to lead to torture. For instance, by reducing armed occupations of foreign countries, by not funding militaristic governments (e.g. Pinochet) who repress their populations and so on.