American torture is back in the news again as Gina Haspel, President Donald Trump’s pick to head the Central Intelligence Agency, prepares for what could be a rocky Senate confirmation hearing with some tough questions about her role overseeing a secret torture prison in Thailand and destroying tapes of brutal detainee interrogation sessions.
Haspel’s nomination, and to a lesser degree her earlier appointment as deputy CIA director, reopened what more well-meaning observers, including torture survivor Sen John McCain (R-AZ), have called “one of the darkest chapters” in US history, the so-called ‘enhanced interrogation’ abuse of men, women and children caught up in America’s endless war on terror.
However, post-9/11 detainee abuse can only be called a chapter if we recognize that it is part of a much larger story, one which begins with some of the first European usurpers to set foot on North American soil and one which continues essentially uninterrupted to the present day.
Torture is almost always a crime attributed to other, less civilized peoples. When most Americans do think of their own country’s torture, if they think of it at all, they usually imagine it to be a regrettable departure the civilized norm misguidedly perpetrated amid the terror and fury ignited by the deadliest attack on US soil in generations. Yet torture has been an unspoken weapon in America’s arsenal since the earliest colonial days.
In a nation built on a foundation of genocide and slavery, horrific violence, including widespread torture, was a critical tool for securing and maintaining white dominance in the same way that great global violence has been crucial to perpetuating America’s superpower status in modern times.
The same founding fathers who constitutionally proscribed ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ endorsed and committed the most heinous crimes against both Native Americans and black slaves – witness Thomas Jefferson calling for the “extermination or removal” of Virginia’s Indians. Ever fearful of revolt and revenge, white Southerners subjected black slaves to the some of the cruelest punishments imaginable to break both their physical and psychological ability to resist.
By the dawn of the twentieth century, American torture went global following the imperial conquest of former Spanish colonies, including the Philippines, where US occupation troops faced courts-martial for, among other crimes, waterboarding captured resistance fighters. Meanwhile back home, black Americans were scorched, skinned, disemboweled and castrated while still alive by otherwise upstanding citizens, including women and children, during many of the thousands of lynchings that plagued the Jim Crow South and far beyond.
During World War II, the vast bulk of the most barbarous tortures were committed by America’s enemies. Yet rather than punish some of the worst offenders, the United States paid both Nazi and Japanese war criminals.
It wasn’t long before the US was carrying out its own torture programs, like the notorious Project MK-ULTRA, while aiding or committing torture in support of brutal dictators in various Cold War hot spots around the world.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘A Brief History of American Torture’.