W. Fitzhugh Brundage


On his book Civilizing Torture: An American Tradition

Cover Interview of April 17, 2019


I intended the book to be a call for vigilance. America’s leaders, or those who act on our behalf, possess no innate moral or ethical lodestar that predisposes them to respect human dignity or rights. To the contrary, the American political system rests on the recognition that Americans, like all other human beings, have the capacity, even the inclination, to abuse power. The oft-repeated claim that the United States is a “nation of laws” is a concise expression of the Founders’ aspiration to channel and temper the exercise of power with rules, procedures, and constraints. Yet despite the Founders’ fear of an oppressive government, the nation’s democratic institutions and traditions have proved far more hospitable to torture than many Americans assume.

Bedrock elements of American democracy have arguably both fostered torture and hindered efforts to curtail it. Dispersed authority across multiple layers of local, state, and federal government along with the tradition of popular democracy and localism may have protected citizens from the tyranny of the national government. But that same decentralized power gave license to countless legal and self-declared agents of the state to wield the power of petty despots. Consequently, Americans should be vigilant against abuses of power in all severely hierarchical state institutions or wherever extreme inequality have been tolerated, even defended, in the name of the public good, tradition, or a consequence of human nature.