As expected, at this week’s Senate Intelligence Committee confirmation hearings for Gina Haspel, President Trump’s nominee to lead the Central Intelligence Agency, the C.I.A.’s post-9/11 “interrogation program” and Haspel’s own role in the program and its aftermath took center stage. Haspel sought to cast the program and its brutal techniques—many of which have since been outlawed—as an aberrant episode in the agency’s history, and vowed that under her leadership “C.I.A. will not restart such a detention and interrogation program.” Just as Haspel aimed to position that use of torture as an outlier in the history of the C.I.A., so too did the hearings propagate an understanding of the brutality of those years as a brief deviation from the long history of moral leadership demonstrated by the United States. Indeed, the majority of Americans would likely share such sentiment: we do not torture.
In Civilizing Torture: An American Tradition, forthcoming this fall, decorated American historian W. Fitzhugh Brundage shows that alongside the long American lineage of denouncing torture there’s an equally enduring culture of both embracing and excusing barbarism. Brundage revisits a series of moments and practices—from the initial contact of Europeans with North America, to the early American republic, to slavery, to the American imperial project, to local law enforcement’s embrace of “the third degree,” through the Cold War, and up to the present—to demonstrate that behavior considered to have been torturous in its own time has been far more prevalent in U.S. history than we acknowledge. By threading this past into a cohesive story of debate and dismissal, Brundage reveals the ways in which the mythos of American exceptionalism has underwritten the narrative so evident this week on Capitol Hill.
The passages below come from the introduction to Civilizing Torture.
In April 1858 Harper’s Weekly, one of the most popular American magazines of the day, published a gruesome article entitled “Torture and Homicide in an American State Prison.” Accompanied by graphic illustrations, the article dwelled on the so-called “water cure,” a punishment during which an inmate was stripped and seated in a stall with his feet and arms fastened in stocks and his head extended up into a tank that fit snugly around his neck. The prisoner’s head was drenched with freezing cold water that cascaded down from a height of a foot or more for several minutes at a time. The tank that encircled the prisoner’s neck emptied slowly, inducing a sensation of drowning while the prisoner struggled to keep his mouth and nose above the pool of draining water.
Thirty years later an investigation of practices at Elmira Reformatory, the most acclaimed American penal institution of the day, revealed that staff there continued to douse prisoners with cold water, in addition to confining them in darkened cells for weeks on end, shackling and hoisting them until their toes barely touched the floor, and “paddling” them with specially made boards. In 1899 American soldiers occupying the Philippines after the Spanish-American War sent home letters boasting of their routine application of a variant of the “water cure” to coerce information from Filipino guerrillas. To apply the “cure,” soldiers pinned their victim to the ground by his legs and arms and partially raised his head “so as to make pouring in the water an easier matter.” If he refused to keep his mouth open, his tormentors pinched his nose closed and used a rifle barrel or bamboo stick to pry his jaws apart. Then they poured water into his overextended mouth until he looked like “a pregnant woman.” According to witnesses, a few applications of the “water cure” usually elicited a flood of information.
A century later, the outlines of the “enhanced interrogation” methods adopted by the Central Intelligence Agency and military interrogators during the “War on Terror” became public. Americans learned that between 2003 and 2006 at least eighty-nine Middle Eastern detainees in CIA custody had been slapped, slammed against walls, deprived of sleep, stuffed into coffins, and threatened with violent death. The most severe method was “waterboarding,” a modern-day variant of the technique applied a century and a half earlier in American prisons. Waterboarding entailed pouring water over a cloth covering the face and breathing passages of an immobilized detainee, which produced an acute sensation of drowning. One detainee endured more than 180 waterboarding sessions.