W. Fitzhugh Brundage


On his book Civilizing Torture: An American Tradition

Cover Interview of April 17, 2019

In a nutshell

The “American tradition” in this book’s subtitle is not a particular method of tormenting the body. It refers instead to the debates that Americans have waged regarding torture. At the outset I decided that it was not feasible for me to produce an inventory of torture in the United States across four centuries. My interest instead lies with how Americans have debated, justified, and condemned torture. Like a minuet in which the dancers change fashions over time, yet the steps remain the same, American debates about torture have unfolded in predictable fashion. During these debates, Americans invariably have invoked the nation’s utopian ambitions to serve as the exemplar of modern democratic civilization. Torture, which Americans have associated with barbarism or tyranny, cannot easily be squared with the notion that the United States is a unique nation with uniquely humane laws and principles.

A common thread in American debates over torture is the presumption that Americans should exist in a state of national innocence, with torture held at arm’s length. Americans have been at best complacent and at worst willful in presuming that torture is something that other people do elsewhere. Any claims that torture is an exceptional aberration whenever Americans commit it are difficult to reconcile with the history recounted in my book. We cannot credibly claim that when other countries torture it reflects their basic character, but when we torture it violates ours. The history of torture in the United States, above all, reveals the toxic consequences when rhetoric and policies that dehumanize “the enemy within” or a foreign foe exploit popular anxiety about security. Appeals to security have been the ultimate excuse for and defense of torture. When the preservation of rights is believed to impede or diminish security, then rights have been jettisoned and even the prohibition of torture has been conditional.