Civilizing Torture: An American Tradition


W. Fitzhugh Brundage, a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, provides in Civilizing Torture: An American Tradition a timely overview of America's enduring and fraught relationship with the ancient practice of physically harming prisoners.

Although the American colonies prided themselves on leaving behind the barbaric corporal punishments that were common in the Old World, torture survived in various forms, under different names, and with an array of strained justifications. It flourished on the frontier, where one of the more fruitful sources of cultural exchange between European settlers and Native Americans was novel methods of torture, which both societies practiced with aplomb.

Despite the Enlightenment values enshrined in the Eighth Amendment, torture persisted through the American republic's early experiments with penitentiaries, where guards used floggings and simulated drowning—we call it waterboarding today, but back then it was known as "the water cure"—to break recalcitrant inmates.

Brundage traces the use of torture through slavery, the Civil War's brutal P.O.W. camps, the U.S. military campaign in the Philippines, all the way to the "enhanced interrogations" of the global war on terror. The book details the recurring ways the reality was justified and minimized to avoid admitting that America wasn't living up to its ideals: semantic gymnastics, exigent circumstances, insisting abuses didn't occur or that they were isolated incidents.

"Despite the Founders' care to inhibit the establishment of an oppressive central state, the nation's democratic institutions and traditions have proved far more hospitable to torture than many Americans assume," Brundage concludes.

Given the current president's cavalier attitude toward the grim practice, this book is essential reading on how torture has been used, debated, condemned, covered up, and excused over and over.

NEXT: New York's $175 Billion State Budget Includes Spending Hikes, 'Mansion Taxes,' and Plastic Bag Bans

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Seems strange to limit it to America. The whole world does it, always has, always will. The American examples came straight from Europe for the most part, except of course for the truly American ones taught by the Indians, but I suspect he’s too politically correct to include them among “Americans”.

    It seems especially strange given that the ostensible purpose of such a book is surely to draw attention to torture itself; it makes one wonder if his purpose is not more likely to be another gratuitous swipe at the white male elite running the country.

    1. It’s also interesting that he doesn’t consider torture relative. What he calls torture in prisons (warerboarding, flogging) was by any means nearly as barbaric as breaking at the wheel, iron maidens, etc. Flogging was standard naval (and probably elsewhere) punishment well into the 1800s. No doubt what we do routinely now (bail is a good example, or CPS breaking up families, or parents grounding children) will be considered torture some day.

      I do not think I will buy or borrow this book.

      1. a ab abc abcd abcde abcdef ahf: “What he calls torture in prisons (warerboarding, flogging) was by any means nearly as barbaric as breaking at the wheel, iron maidens, et

        Translation: “a ab abc abcd abcde abcdef ahf” thinks waterboarding and flogging isn’t so bad.

        1. I do think Bush approving those “enhanced interrogation” techniques for suspected terrorists was about 1000X less dangerous and worrisome than Obama ordering the assassination of US citizens by drone strike without a fair trial. That is probably the most dangerous, unconstitutional thing any president has done since WWII.

  2. Start working at home with Google! It’s by-far the best job I’ve had. Last Wednesday I got a brand new BMW since getting a check for $6474 this – 4 weeks past. I began this 8-months ago and immediately was bringing home at least $77 per hour. I work through this link, go to tech tab for work detail.


Please to post comments

Comments are closed.