Civilizing Torture

Civilizing Torture attempts to place the controversy around “enhanced interrogation tactics” that dominated the national conversation during the War on Terror in a larger context throughout American history. The work underscores that Americans have reconciled themselves to the use of torture during “emergencies” far more often than the national conscience acknowledges.

The Europeans who first came to America from Europe professed an intention to create a society free of the barbarism of the Old World tyranny and New World savagery. But over the centuries Americans have turned to torture during moments of crisis at home and abroad and have debated its legitimacy in defense of law and order.

From the Indian wars, to Civil War POW prisons and early penitentiaries, from the “the third degree” in police stations and racial lynchings to the “War on Terror,” the nation’s institutions have proven to be far more amenable to torture than the nation’s professed commitment to liberty would suggest.  Legal and racial inequality fostered many opportunities for state agents to wield excessive power, which they justified as essential for American safety and well-being.

Reconciling state violence with the aspirations of Americans for social and political justice is an enduring challenge. By tracing the historical debates about the efficacy of torture and the attempt to adapt it to democratic values, Civilizing Torture reveals the recurring struggle to decide what limits Americans are willing to impose on the power of the state.  At a time of escalating rhetoric aimed at cleansing the nation of the undeserving, as well as ongoing military involvement in conflicts around the world, the debate over torture remains a critical and unresolved part of America’s tradition.

What Inspired Civilizing Torture  
During the heated debates over the Bush administration’s “enhanced interrogation” policies in 2004 I was struck by how many critics of the policies described them as contrary to American traditions.  Because I had previously written on the history of lynching in the United States I knew that Americans had previously engaged in torture. Moreover, they too had vigorously justified their violence as did President Bush and his allies and they also had escaped any prosecution.  Struck by the contemporary amnesia about the history of torture in the United States I looked for books to satisfy my curiosity about American attitudes about torture. To my surprise, I discovered there was very little written on the topic, and virtually known that traced the history since the nation’s founding.  Civilizing Torture is my contribution to filling this void and in tracing how Americans have sometimes rationalized torture and sought to reconcile it with democracy.

“An indispensable book. Even as Americans have prided themselves on a civilized standard that is above torture, the United States has actually been engaged in the practice for virtually its entire history. Brundage shows that many of U.S. history’s key moments have involved torture of the most despicable kinds. Here’s hoping that Brundage’s book is the beginning of a new reckoning.” – John Fabian Witt, Columbia University

“A remarkable account of America’s episodic engagement with torture over the course of the nation’s history. Brundage uncovers ‘an American tradition’ marked less by legal and moral restraint than by strategies of rhetorical management designed to conserve American innocence and exceptionalism. A searing analysis of America’s past that helps make sense of its bewildering present.”—David Garland, New York University

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America’s Identity Crisis Over Torture

In his new book “Civilizing Torture: An American Tradition,” (Belknap Press/2018) University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill history professor Fitzhugh Brundage argues Americans allow or overlook practices otherwise deemed barbaric when our existence or security seems threatened. Host Frank Stasio talks with Brundage about his book and how Americans have justified the use of torture in the name of American institutions and democracy.

  • Year November 2018
  • Genre Ethics, History
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