W. Fitzhugh Brundage


On his book Civilizing Torture: An American Tradition

Cover Interview of April 17, 2019

The wide angle

My interest in these historical events is a product of our times. Prior to 2004 it is unlikely that I would have written a book about torture in the United States. But following the early revelations about the acts of torture and cruelty at Abu Ghraib and about “enhanced interrogation” techniques used by the CIA during the War on Terror my attention was drawn to the debate that ensued. In particular, I recall watching Senator John McCain as he denounced torture and insisted that torture was contrary to American principles. Americans, he vowed, do not torture. On this topic, he spoke with extraordinary gravitas, because he himself had been a victim of torture during the Vietnam War. I appreciated the sentiment that McCain expressed, even while I disagreed with its premise. After all, my first book had been on lynching in the American South between 1880 and 1930 so I knew for a fact that some Americans had committed torture and that they had done so unapologetically.

Prompted by curiosity about the Bush administration’s justifications for its policies, I did what historians do; I searched the library for scholarship to make sense of them. I had no intention of researching and writing on the topic at the time. I delved into the writings of human rights activists and legal specialists who traced the campaign against torture during the previous half century. But I searched in vain for a systematic account of torture in the United States. Civilizing Torture, eventually, took form as my effort to fill this void.