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.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Civilizing Torture: An American Tradition".