Torture: What Would George Do?

george and barackJuly 4 patriotism takes many forms. For some of us, Independence Day is a perfect opportunity to measure the state of our nation against the high ideals that our country was founded on and seek ways to close the gap.

One area where the divergence between our values and our policies is particularly striking is the issue of torture. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, and the Bush/Cheney administration’s endorsement of what they liked to call enhanced interrogation techniques, a debate that had largely been settled reared its ugly head.  Torture advocates, once again, argued that our national security relies on brutal techniques such as waterboarding.

The last several months alone have seen two highly disturbing legal decisions — the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling barring use of the Torture Victims Protection Act to sue corporations or other entities accused of torture, and an appeals court ruling essentially exonerating the U.S. government for torturing a 9/11 detainee. We’ve also witnessed the highly publicized release of a very disturbing book by former CIA official Jose Rodriguez, inaccurately crediting the use of torture as a critical tool in the capture of Osama bin Laden.

On the eve of July 4, these developments raise an obvious question: What would our Founding Fathers say about the current debate over torture? The answer is both sobering and instructive, showing that the founders of our country were clear about the moral and strategic perils of torture.

Let’s start with George Washington. The first president was no fan of torture, even amidst the brutal treatment by the British of Americans during the War of Independence. He viewed torture primarily through a moral lens, declaring in 1775, “Should any American soldier be so base and infamous as to injure any [prisoner]. . . I do most earnestly enjoin you to bring him to such severe and exemplary punishment as the enormity of the crime may require. Should it extend to death itself, it will not be disproportional to its guilt at such a time and in such a cause… for by such conduct they bring shame, disgrace and ruin to themselves and their country.”

John Adams shared Washington’s views, though he saw first and foremost the inefficacy and strategic dangers of torture. Writing to his wife in 1777, he said, “I know of no policy, God is my witness, but this — Piety, Humanity and Honesty are the best Policy. Blasphemy, Cruelty and Villainy have prevailed and may again. But they won’t prevail against America, in this Contest, because I find the more of them are employed, the less they succeed.”

Nearly a hundred years later, Abraham Lincoln instituted a code of military conduct. This was done in the midst of the Civil War, when the outcome was far from certain. Here’s what Lincoln’s code stated: “Military necessity does not admit of cruelty – that is, the infliction of suffering for the sake of suffering or for revenge, nor of maiming or wounding except in fight, nor of torture to extort confessions.”

julie gutmanNoble as it was, Lincoln’s policy was merely consistent with how the founders of our country viewed the issue of torture. Here’s how historian David Hackett Fischer, writing about Washington and his contemporaries, put it: “American leaders believed it was not enough to win the war. They also had to win in a way that was consistent with the values of their society and the principles of their cause. One of their greatest achievements … was to manage the war in a manner that was true to the expanding humanitarian ideals of the American Revolution.”

On July 4 we would do well to reexamine those ideals and strive once again to meet them.

Julie Gutman
Program for Torture Victims 

Julie Gutman is executive director of the Program for Torture Victims, a Los Angeles-based human rights organization that has helped thousands of torture survivors rebuild their lives.

Comments

  1. Diane Lefer says

    Thank you for reminding us on July 4th of where we should stand and what we should stand for.

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