Torture IS an “American” Value: Reality Versus the Rhetoric

May 1, 2007

I became aware of torture as a U.S. policy in 1969 when I was serving as a USAF combat security officer working near Can Tho City in Viet Nam’s Mekong Delta. I was “informed” about the CIA’s Phong Dinh Province Interrogation Center (PIC) in Can Tho City and a POW camp near the Can Tho Army airfield where supposedly “significant members” of the VCI (Viet Cong Infrastructure) were taken for torture as part of the Phoenix “Pacification” Program. A huge nearby French-built prison was also apparently utilized for torture of “suspects” from the Delta region. The word was that many of the VC suspects were routinely murdered, and subsequent historical accounts confirm this.

Naive, I was shocked! The Agency for International Development (AID) working with Southern Illinois University, for example, trained Vietnamese police and prison officials the “art” of torture (“interrogations”) under cover of “Public Safety.” U.S. officials believed they were teaching “better methods,” often making “suggestions” during torture sessions conducted by Vietnamese police.

Instead of the recent euphemism, “illegal combatants,” the U.S. in Viet Nam claimed prisoners were “criminal” thus exempting them from Geneva Convention protections.

Use of torture as a function of terror, or its equivalent in sadistic behavior, has been historic de facto U.S. American policy.

Our European ancestor’s shameful, sadistic treatment of the original Indigenous inhabitants based on an ethos of arrogance and violence has become ingrained in our values. “Manifest Destiny” has rationalized as a religion the elimination or assimilation of those perceived to be blocking “American” progress — at home or abroad — a belief that expansion of the nation, including subjugation of natives and others, is divinely ordained, that our “superior race” is obligated to “civilize” those who stand in the way.

When examining my “roots” in New York and New England, I discovered that Indian captives were skinned alive and dragged through the streets of New Amsterdam (New York City) in the 1640s. Scalping enabled Indian bounty hunters to be paid.

Captains Underhill and Endicott in the Massachusetts Bay Colony governed by John Winthrop spent their time “burning and spoiling the country” of Indians in Rhode Island and Connecticut in 1636-37 while sparing the children and women as slaves.

My hometown of Geneva in the Finger Lakes region of New York State was once home to the Seneca Nation with its flourishing farms, orchards, and sturdy houses. In one two-week period in September 1779, General George Washington’s orders “to lay waste, that thecountry . . .be . . .destroyed,” instilling “terror” among the Indians, were dutifully carried out by General Sullivan who promised that “the Indians shall see that there is malice enough in our hearts to destroy everything that contributes to their support.” Sullivan’s campaign has been described as a ruthless policy of scorched earth, bearing comparison with Sherman’s march to the sea or the search-and-destroy missions of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam.

In northern California where I now live the same grueling history exists. Bret Harte wrote in 1860 that little children and old women were mercilessly stabbed and their skulls crushed by axes, “oldwomen . . .lay weltering in blood, their brains dashedout . . .whileinfants . . .with their faces cloven with hatchets and their bodies ghastly wounds” lay nearby.

In 1920 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) investigated the conduct of U.S. troops who had occupied Haiti since 1915: More than 3,000 Haitians had been killed by U. S. Marines, many having been tortured.

When Indigenous Nicaragua resistance fought against occupying United States Marines in the late 1920s, the Marines launched counter insurgency war. U.S. policy makers insisted on “stabilizing” the country to enforce loan repayments to U.S. banks. They defined the resistance forces as “bandits,” an earlier equivalent to the “criminal prisoners” in Viet Nam and “illegal combatants” in Iraq. Thus, since the U.S. claimed not to be fighting a “legitimate” military force, any Nicaraguan perceived as interfering with the occupiers was commonly subjected to beatings, tortures, and beheadings. When the U.S-installed Somoza dictatorship was overthrown in 1979, the Somoza torture centers were immediately destroyed.

In 1946, the U.S. Army institutionalized teaching torture techniques to Latin American militaries with the opening of its School of the Americas (SOA) which continues today as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHISC).

Torture has been an historical U.S. practice in police stations and prisons (and via countless vigilante crimes of sadistic torture and mutilations against Black Americans).

The Wickersham Commission’s 1931 Report on Lawlessness in Law Enforcement, concluded that “The third degree is the employment of methods which inflict suffering, physical or mental, upon a person, in order to obtain from that person information about acrime. . . .The third degree is widespread. The third degree is a secret and illegal practice.”

Seventy years later, the 2002 Human Rights Watch World Report documented systematic use of torture by U.S. police:”. . . thousandsof allegations of police abuse, including excessive use of force, such as unjustified shootings, beatings, fatal chokings, and rough treatment.”

My studies of brutality in Massachusetts prisons in 1981 concluded (in Walpole State Prison, Massachusetts: An Exercise in Torture), “a clear pattern and history of systematic torture including withholding water, heat, bedding, medical care, and showers; imposition of hazards such as flooding cells, placing foreign matter in food, igniting clothes and bedding, spraying with mace and tear gas; regular physical assaults and beatings; and forcing prisoners to lie face down, naked and handcuffed to oneanother . . . onfreezing . . . outdoor ground while being kicked and beaten.” This was two decades before the Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo revelations.

Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist has testified about human rights abuses in U.S. prisons: “The plight of prisoners in the USA is strikingly similar to the plight of the Iraqis who were abused by American GIs. Prisoners are maced, raped, beaten, starved, left naked in freezing cold cells and otherwise abused in too many American prisons, as substantiated by findings in manycourts. . . .”

It would behoove us to attempt to understand the underlying psychological “defenses” that seem to have afflicted us like a cultural mental illness since our origins.


  1. Ariel Ky
    Posted March 25, 2010 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this historical framework on the use of torture in the U.S. Apparently torture is so integral to the American psyche, that people have people accepted the use of tasering also. Your article explains this progression of acceptance of torture. I have been writing for years against the use of torture, in particular at Diego Garcia, to no avail. Not only has the U.S. succeeded in keeping the doors closed at Diego Garcia from scrutiny on the use of torture, it’s managed to keep it from every becoming a public issue at all. I am coming to the conclusion that there is something ingrained in the American psyche that allows people to ignore the routine practice of torture by the U.S., and your article explains why.

  2. Posted September 18, 2010 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for explaining a small portion of what you know about what is going on in this sick continuance use of twisted policy and (sic)acceptable actions. I am appalled at the ongoing never ending deplorable use of torture my country continues to do. In solidarity I am standing against this vocally and publicly. Demanding truth and justice, above all human rights to be respected.
    Thanks Brian…your information really helps get these important discussion into the conversation of everyday people, who need this type of information

  3. Norman Koerner
    Posted April 3, 2012 at 4:56 am | Permalink

    My thanks to you sir, noble warrior for the people against empire, and for truth within the matrix of lies, ideology and illegitimate power and authority. Yes it is arguably a leading American value for without it “America” could not have expanded “from sea to shining sea” bludgeoning the inhabitants living between these bodies of water. Truly brian, I remember your sacrifice which contributed to my political awakening and evolution during my college years, thank you for maintaining your values all these years.

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