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Pulitzer Prize Finalist Looks At The History Of Torture In America

man smiles at camera
Grant Halverson
“I think the resort to torture has been a reflection of the frustration of Americans in positions of power," W. Fitzhugh Brundage said. ";

America has a long history of torture. From enhanced interrogation during the Iraq War all the way back to the Salem Witch Trials, torture has featured prominently in the story of the country.

The question of why it happened is a question of power and fear.

“I think the resort to torture has been a reflection of the frustration of Americans in positions of power who have felt threatened by enemies that they did not believe either fought by conventional or traditional means of fighting or were so insidious that some extreme measures were needed," said Dr. W. Fitzhugh Brundage, author of a Pulitzer Prize-finalist book "Civilizing Torture" on how Americans have excused torture at certain times in the life of the republic.

Brundage said in cases of modern policing, torture comes as a response to an existential threat by those holding the power.

“It's been tied to a number of forces or influences but especially a rhetoric of the war on crime, the idea that there is a thin blue line that stands between ordered society, law-abiding society, and this other world that is completely violent and anarchic," Brundage said.

Brundage explained that these police perceptions of having to prevent anarchy were especially exacerbated by the rhetoric of the 1980s and ‘90s war on drugs, which gave police a license to adopt extreme measures. 

Some say that the police use of these measures was fueled by racism. Brundage said that fear of anarchy and racism were entwined in the actions of police during the period.

“The notion that white Europeans were creating the most refined, elevated, sophisticated human civilization ever achieved was deeply embedded in both European and American thought by the 19th century.” Brundage said. “The idea of civilization is not somehow race-blind. It was deeply informed by the idea that the only people who could create an advanced civilization were white Europeans or Euro-Americans.”

As American culture moved away from this idea of white superiority in the 20th century, rhetoric changed to civilization being preserved through the eradication of criminal elements. But when thinking of a criminal, many will think of characteristics associated with a person of color. Same with terrorists, who are stereotyped as being people of color. Because of those racially charged associations, the idea of civilization eradicating barbarism or criminality comes with a racial undertone.

Brundage said the idea of preserving and protecting the founding values of the United States is a reason that extreme measures of protection are put in place. But he feels they pull both ways.

“I think that’s why at the same time that there has been a recurring resort to torture at times of crisis or perceived crisis, there has also been strong opposition to the resort to torture,” he said. 

Brundage said the challenge is that a case of torture pops up and activists will target it and call for measures, but because of the dispersal of authority, it’s hard to ensure that some of those organizations are not using extreme means.

“We should not lose sight of the fact,” Brundage said, “that the Supreme Court has over the course of the 20th century made extraordinary in-roads in trying to hamper violations of citizens rights by the police. And to the extent that those violations have continued, those violations have almost always been flagrant violations of norms that the Supreme Court and other courts have tried to establish.”

The challenge then for opponents of police torture, Brundage added, is in knowing where violations happen and to gather the kind of legal evidence needed to confront powerful institutions and do so in an environment where the rhetoric is unsympathetic to the rights of alleged criminals.

You can hear more from W. Fitzhugh Brundage on Thursday, Nov. 14, when he speaks at Illinois State University’s Bone Student Center. That lecture will be in the Old Main Room at 7 p.m. It is free and open to the public.

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WGLT News Director Charlie Schlenker grew up in Rock Island and graduated from Augustana College. He has spent more than three decades in radio.
Sean Newgent is a senior journalism major at Illinois State University. He's an intern for the GLT newsroom.