by Chris Edelson is an assistant professor of government in American University's School of Public Affairs. He is the author of Emergency Presidential Power: From the Drafting of the Constitution to the War on Terror, published in 2013 by the University of Wisconsin Press.
In his piece, “Torture Is Who We Are,” Peter Beinart rightly exposes the Pollyanish mindset that would describe the United States as “intrinsically moral” with torture that has occurred since 9/11 “represent[ing] an aberration.” Beinart is of course right to point out that post-9/11 waterboarding is hardly the first time in U.S. history that Americans have been guilty of torture -- he cites slavery, waterboarding of Filipino prisoners during the Spanish-American War and electric shocks delivered to the genitals of prisoners during the Vietnam War as some grotesque examples. There are others. Civilian law enforcement authorities used waterboarding and sleep deprivation on domestic criminal suspects decades before 9/11. A U.S. soldier waterboarded a Vietnamese prisoner in 1968.
So Beinart is right in one sense -- torture is not something new in American history. It cannot be seen as an aberration from a previously morally upright, torture-free history. But there is one important difference that he misses, that makes his analysis more pessimistic than it need be. Torture by Americans is not new. The idea that Americans can torture with impunity, however, is new. In each of the examples I listed, there were consequences for the torturers. A Texas sheriff and his deputies who waterboarded a criminal suspect were themselves convicted and sentenced to prison. The U.S. soldier who waterboarded a Vietnamese prisoner was court-martialed. When law enforcement authorities subjected a suspect to questioning for 36 hours without sleep, the Supreme Court threw out a conviction based on the coerced confession that had been extracted. The same is true for one of Beinart’s examples. A U.S. military officer who waterboarded Filipino prisoners was court-martialed, suspended from command for one month and fined $50. Moreover, before 9/11, even when torture was not punished, no one proudly defended it or attempted to justify it -- instead, it was swept under the rug, as often happened during the Vietnam War. There is one essential exception to emphasize: slavery. Slaveowners openly tortured slaves with impunity. This is of course a central fact of American history, not truly an “exception”, except in the limited sense that it varies from the other examples I have given where torture before 9/11 was either punished or else covered up. What has changed since 9/11 as compared with most of the examples noted is that there are now people willing, even proud, to defiantly defend torture.
Beinart is correct that “America has tortured throughout its history.” Before 9/11, however, there were usually consequences for torture: torturers faced prosecution and punishment in the criminal justice system. This is part of what it means to be true to the rule of law: when the law is violated, offenders are punished. No country can guarantee that all of its law enforcement officials, soldiers, or government officials, will refrain from torture. But countries that uphold the rule of law can guarantee that torturers will be prosecuted.