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America Is Built on Torture, Remember?

The people arguing that torture contradicts our country's historical virtues are dead wrong.
(Photo: truthout/Flickr)

(Photo: truthout/Flickr)

The release of the Senate Intelligence Committee report has sparked a great deal of outrage—and justifiably so. The details are grim and sickening: The report says that the CIA tortured innocent people, threatened to murder and rape the mothers of detainees, and used rectal feeding or, essentially, anal rape, as a punishment. The report paints a picture of heedless brutality, cruelty, and sadism.

Given the details from Abu Ghraib, and the long-known, supposedly sanctioned techniques like waterboarding, these revelations aren't exactly surprising. But they still have the power to shock. Andrew Sullivan, who has been a bitter and committed critic of American torture, summed up the reaction of many when he suggested that readers "reflect on a president [George W. Bush] who cannot admit to being the first in that office to authorize such an assault on core American values and decency." To numerous critics on the left and some on the right as well, the torture seems like a violation of the basic American commitment to freedom, justice, and human rights. It is a betrayal of our ideals as a country.

America's most important value—the value that turned this country from a marginal economic backwater to a world-straddling imperial power—was torture.

But is it really? American history, after all, is not an unbroken tale of values and decency. In fact, according to Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, American decency has always been more a theory than a practice and America's most important value—the value that turned this country from a marginal economic unknown to a world-straddling imperial power—was torture.

HISTORICALLY, SLAVERY HAS OFTEN been presented as an aberration. Perfected capitalism, the argument goes, came out of Northern industrialization. The South was a stunted or (in neo-Confederate accounts) quaint backwater. Slavery, in this accounting, was a failed institution that would have died out on its own accord even without the Civil War; it was a mistake, rather than a central part of the American narrative.

Baptist convincingly rejects this. Slavery was not quaint, nor stunted, nor backwards looking. It was the engine of American success. Cotton was the most important global crop in the 1700s and 1800s, and, Baptist writes, "The return from the cotton monopoly powered the modernization of the rest of the American economy." American industrialization came about not despite slavery, or in the North next door to slavery, but because slavery fueled it.

Again, historical accounts of the cotton boom, and of industrialization, have tended to focus on technological advances—especially the cotton gin. But the gin, as Baptist argues, just made it possible to remove cotton seeds faster. This was important in freeing up a production bottleneck, but it doesn't explain how America managed to produce more and more cotton to run through those gins.

What enabled the growth in cotton production was an innovation in labor management. That innovation was, in a word, torture. In the Southeast, during early slavery in the Americas, labor tended to be organized on a job or quota basis; individual men and women had to finish a certain amount of work, and then they might have some time to themselves—thus incentivizing speedy completion of tasks.

When torture achieves its aims, the result is more, and more brutal, torture.

Planters in the expanding Southwest, though, came up with a more efficient, more brutal system. People were given quotas they had to meet—and then if they met those quotas, they were given higher quotas. There was no positive incentive. Instead, there was the whip for failure, or, if not the whip, then "carpenters' tools, chains, cotton presses, hackles, handsaws, hoehandles, iron or branding livestock, nails, pokers, smoothing irons, singletrees, steelyards, tongs." Virtually "every product sold in New Orleans stores converted into an instrument of torture," Baptist writes. Antebellum whites, with a quintessentially American genius for sadism, pioneered just about every method of what we now consider "modern" torture: "sexual humiliation, mutilation, electric shocks, solitary confinement in 'stress positions', burning, even waterboarding."

To avoid this dreadful orgy of violence and cruelty, men and women had to work harder, think quicker, turn all their creativity to the task of picking faster, faster, and faster again. Baptist found that the most efficient pickers were beaten most because, he says, they were the most innovative, the ones most likely to figure out even more ways to get cotton into their sacks. Through the use of systematic terror, whites forced black people to become the most efficient producers of cotton in the world: The United States jumped from producing 180 million bales of cotton in 1821, to 354 million bales in 1831, to 644 million bales in 1841, to 1,390 bales in 1860. "By 1820," Baptist writes, "the ability of enslaved people in southwestern frontier fields to produce more cotton of a higher quality for less drove most other producing regions out of the world market."

Torture, Baptist shows, was a success—and was terrible in no small part because it was a success.

OUR CURRENT DEBATE ON torture tends to assume that if the CIA's methods of waterboarding, rape, humiliation, and murder resulted in useful intelligence, then those methods are somehow justified. In fact, though, as Baptist shows, torture is not justified by success, but institutionalized by it. When torture achieves its aims, the result is more, and more brutal, torture. Slavery became more and more vicious as planters realized that the whip could extort more and more gains from its victims. Even death could be turned to profit; those who were murdered were often presented as object lessons to terrorize those who remained. The success of torture turned America into a charnel house of pillage, rape, and atrocity for decade after brutal decade.

American industrialization came about not despite slavery, or in the North next door to slavery, but because slavery fueled it.

Sullivan's claim that Bush's use of torture violated American tradition or values is unsustainable. America's success was created out of torture; torture is why we are an economic power. From the whip to the waterboard, America has used violence to ensure its safety, its fortune, and its power. "Violence," as H. Rap Brown said, "is as American as apple pie."

The argument that America doesn't torture isn't just an interpretation of history, of course. It's also a moral argument; Sullivan, and those like him, point to American values and decency in an attempt to create a country that does not torture. Thinking of Bush's torture as exceptional is a way to make it unacceptable. Sullivan argues this is not who we are. He may be historically wrong, but shouldn't we ignore that in the interest of advancing moral right?

The problem is that the argument for American virtue is not, ultimately, a rejection of the logic of torture. It's an endorsement of it. Torture in the war on terror is justified on the grounds that those people, over there, are irredeemably evil and dangerous. We are good and decent and moral; therefore, anything we do in response to evil is also good and decent and moral—or at worst a tough choice by good men and women manning the ramparts. The videos of ISIS beheadings show once and for all who is in the right. America would never do anything like that, so whatever America does in response is justified. Decency and morality are defined not to exclude torture, but to excuse it.

Reading Baptist, though, it's clear that America has not, in fact, been morally superior to ISIS, or to anyone, up to and including the Nazis. Yes, we don't have slavery anymore—but the nation's current wealth, its current power, and its current place in the world was created out of a nightmare system of cruelty and greed. Nor did that system end, full stop, in 1865. Instead, it ground on, through Jim Crow and lynchings and on to our present prison system, where torture of various kinds is hardly unknown.

When America tortures, then, it is not doing so despite its decency, or to protect its decency. It is doing so as part of a lengthy tradition of almost indescribable violence. We have no virtue that excuses our brutality. We need to avoid torture not because it is incompatible with American ideals, but because it is all too compatible. In forgetfulness or in repose, America's hands, if not checked, still feel for the whip.