It’s comforting for those whose actions are not aligned with their stated values to believe that what one does in real life is not what ultimately defines who one really is. It’s nice to think who we are is determined not by the things we did the day before, but by the stated ideals we hope to aspire to fulfill, starting tomorrow. In a nation-state founded by settler-colonial Protestants, the argument is familiar – it’s what’s deep down inside that gets one up into heaven, not the good or genocidal nature of what one does down here on Earth – and as with any half-decent lie, it’s relatable: as fallible human beings, we’d all rather like to believe that we’re not as bad as we are but as good as we say we would like to be.
While founded on the ethnic cleansing of the continent’s original inhabitants and the enslavement of its African workforce, the news – or rather, confirmation – that the CIA employed a revolting range of “enhanced” torture techniques in the wake of 9/11 is being portrayed by some as a vile exception to the United States’ otherwise exceptional history; a “stain on our values and history,” in the words of Senator Dianne Feinstein, whose committee released the report detailing the agency’s use of near-drownings and mock executions and sexual abuse to humiliate and demoralize a foreign “other” under the guise of gathering intelligence. These practices, the terrible things this country has again and again been shown to do, “are not who we are,” added Secretary of State John Kerry. Indeed, “the awful facts of this report” do not even “represent who they are,” he said of those awful people described in that report (“its important that this period not define the intelligence community in anyone’s mind,” he continued).
“Some of the actions that were taken were contrary to our values,” President Barack Obama chimed in, crediting his government with, as always, correcting its own mistakes (“They aren’t picking up prisoners anymore,” Senator James Risch explained to CNN. “What they do is when they identify a high-value target, the target is droned.”).
As a rhetorical ploy, it’s understandable: Saying the United States has always been garbage is not going to be terribly popular in a nation that still fondly refers to a group of sadistic slave-owners as its “founding fathers” — so politicians savvy enough to know that openly embracing torture is not a good look for the world’s leading state-sponsor of holier-than-thou rhetoric, appeal to a history and set of values that never was and never were in practice, as a way to give political cover to their middling, public relations-minded critiques of the national-security state’s least defensible excesses. It’s entirely false, this narrative of extreme goodness marked by occasional self-correcting imperfection, but it satisfies our national ego to think the American phoenix rises from a store of ethically traded gold, not a pile of rotting trash.
“We will likely hear these false appeals to an imaginary history a great deal with the release of the Senate report on CIA torture,” writes Juan Cole, a history professor at the University of Michigan. But even historians can fall victim to America’s easier to digest mythology, with Cole proceeding to characterize the ugly truth about the United States – that it was founded on the “exaltation of ‘whiteness’ over universal humanity, and preference for property rights over human rights” – as but a right-wing lie. As he tells it, the likes of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were actually progressives who would almost certainly “have voted to release the report and . . . been completely appalled at its contents.”
Cole follows that assertion up with a list of things that some of these founding fathers said they believed: Jefferson, for instance, argued that the formal abolition of torture in the French legal system was in keeping with “the progress of philanthropy and civilization.” And the Bill of Rights of course prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment.” But, naggingly, the actual record of those who gave those nice speeches and drafted the Constitution suggests we shouldn’t just believe what they said and wrote down.
“Fascists will argue that the Constitution does not apply to captured foreign prisoners of war, or that the prisoners were not even P.O.W.s, having been captured out of uniform,” writes Cole. “But focusing on the category of the prisoner is contrary to the spirit of the founding fathers.”
Except, it isn’t at all – and if fascism is denying human rights on the basis of nationality or appearance, than the exalted founders were of course fascists themselves. The same document that ostensibly prohibits torture also defined an African slave as three-fifths of a person – and even then, only for purposes of bolstering the political power of those who enslaved them: in practice, they were treated as property whose master could torture or murder them with impunity. This is not pedantry: Hundreds of thousands of people were denied their ostensibly inalienable rights because of the color of their skin; nearly four million by the time of the Civil War, or almost half the population of the South.
Thomas Jefferson, for instance, may have agonized over the evil of slavery, usually in private, but then he also reputedly raped a 15-year-old he owned and, according to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, paid $70 just so he could have a runaway slave he had already sold off to someone else “severely flogged in the presence of his old companions.” At least once, Jefferson even“ordered the destruction of all dogs belonging to his slaves,” according to researcher Mary V. Thompson. “At least one of the condemned dogs was hung as a disciplinary warning.”
Jefferson was a savage white supremacist who in practice if not always in speech believed that people of color (“slaves” and “savages” as they were known then; “thugs” and “terrorists” as they’re often called today) did not deserve all the same rights as wealthy white Americans like him; he could own them, but they could not even own a pet. The sometimes beautiful talk of universal rights popular around the time of the American revolution was ignored in practice; then as now there were giant exceptions for those whom it would be inconvenient to consider fully human.
Torture has always been commonplace in the United States. As former slave Harriet Ann Jacobs recounted, a wealthy slaveholder who was “highly educated, and styled a perfect gentleman,” tied up a fellow slave to a cotton gin for four days and five nights as punishment for running away; he “was found partly eaten by rats and vermin,” which had likely “gnawed him before life was extinct.” His body was unceremoniously dumped in a grave. “Women are considered of no value,” Jacobs recalled – “This same master shot a woman through the head” for running away, without harm to his social status (“the feeling was that the master had a right to do what he pleased with his own property”) – and any man who resisted a whipping risked being set upon by dogs “to tear his flesh from his bones.”
“I do not say there are no humane slaveholders,” Jacobs concluded her account. “Such characters do exist . . . . But they are ‘like angels’ visits – few and far between.’” And Africans weren’t the only ones denied the rights enjoyed by human property-owning white men.
“The kind of warfare the U.S. military practices today in the rest of the world was developed in their irregular counter-insurgency against Native nations, starting in the British colonial period for sure, but developing uniquely and more harshly once the U.S. was independent with a policy of conquering the continent,” said historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. “The important thing to stress about the use of torture,” she told me, “is that it is unrelated to ‘getting information.’ Torture is used in counterinsurgency to terrorize a population . . . [it’s] a preventative measure to suppress resistance by terrifying the insurgents, breaking their will to continue.” And America has a long, ignoble history of doing it.
In her most recent book, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, notes that British colonists in America organized militias in order to steal land from the less-than-human natives, seeking “to disrupt every aspect of resistance as well as to obtain intelligence” by taking prisoners, “destroying indigenous villages and fields and intimidating and slaughtering enemy noncombatant populations.” A settler named Hannah Dustin became a folk hero in 17th century America after presenting 10 indigenous scalps to the Massachusetts General Assembly, which rewarded her “with bounties for two men, two women, and six children” (later on, the bounties were eliminated for indigenous children under the age of 10; “values”).
Seeking to expand his young nation-state’s territory, President George Washington concluded that, “No other remedy remains, but to extirpate, utterly if possible,” the indigenous population that stood in the white settlers’ way. Andrew Jackson personally waged total war against the men, women and children of the Muskogee Nation before becoming president and ethnically cleansing all native peoples East of the Mississippi; today the guy’s face is on the $20 bill. At Sand Creek, during the presidency of Abe Lincoln, dozens of unarmed Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians were massacred. “All manner of depredations were inflicted on their persons,” recountedone eyewitness. “They were scalped, their brains knocked out; the men used their knives, ripped open women, clubbed little children, knocked them in the head with their guns, beat their brains out, mutilated their bodies in every sense of the word.”
Instead of renouncing this history, we have chosen to celebrate a mythical, white-washed version of it, with genocide relegated to a footnote. If our leaders were more honest, they’d admit that the CIA’s recently revealed torture isn’t a break from this legacy, but the fruit of it – the product of decades of dehumanizing counter-insurgency warfare that expanded the USA from 13 colonies on the East Coast to much of North America and, ultimately, a global empire (it’s no coincidence that the code-name for Osama bin Laden was “Geronimo,” taken from the famed Apache leader).
After almost wiping out America’s original inhabitants, the U.S. government went on to declare total war on differently pigmented people around the globe. President Woodrow Wilson re-instituted slavery (or “forced labor”) in Haiti after its political class proved insufficiently compliant, his famed commitment to the right of self-determination not extending to those darker than pasty white. In Vietnam, the CIA’s “Phoenix Program” saw those accused of collaborating with the North Vietnamese subjected to “assassination, kidnapping, and systematic torture,”according to historian Douglas Valentine. Inmates at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were raped and murdered. And today, amid official proclamations that we live in a post-torture age, inmates held in Guantanamo Bay – many of whom could never even go to a show trial because insofar as there’s any real evidence against them it was gained through torture – continue to be subjected to torturous force-feedings that have been condemned by the United Nations.
The abuse, exported across Latin America through the torture-training School of the Americas, also continues here at home, with tens of thousands of black and brown and poor white US citizens currently languishing in mind-destroying solitary confinement, California’s Pelican Bay State Prison alone holding over 500 people in isolation for a decade or more. In Chicago, a cop who electrocuted and otherwise tortured more than 200 people until they confessed to crimes they didn’t do, got off with about 3 years behind bars after the evidence of his sadism became too great to ignore; that’s less prison time than if he had been caught with a gram of crack cocaine.
Pointing all this out – noting that the U.S. government has rarely lived up to its stated ideals – is not to engage in mere pedantry, nor is it an attempt to suggest this country is irredeemably evil. This nation was born in genocide and slavery, sure, still it could conceivably change – but only if, instead of ignoring the institutionalized injustice, we recognizing and call out the systemic cause of the alleged “aberrations” our leaders are forced to distance themselves from every 18 months. The problem is not that the tree of liberty has produced a few bad seeds, but that the settler-colonists who planted it on someone else’s land watered it with blood of slaves and native peoples. It’s not George W. Bush and Dick Cheney who are responsible for making America a state that tortures, but George Washington and that other dick Tom Jefferson.
Avoiding the routine departure from “our values” requires confronting our actual history; it’s the only way to learn from it. Torture and total war are not the work of a few bad people, but the product of a system that from its inception treated human beings as property and the right to property as more important than the rights of women and men – it’s who we are, and if we want the violence wrought by our system to end, we must honestly address the systemic cause. The paeans to our imagined greatness might be comforting, we should resist the temptation to out-patriot the right or else we’ll end up just like them: doing public relations for the system that allows this evil to keep happening. And if humanity ever does manage to kick the habit of installing the worst among us at the top of hierarchical and unaccountable systems of power, history may very well judge us by our actions, not our pretty words and beautifully articulated aspirations.