TORTURERS R US — An Essay by Christopher Hirschmann Brandt
December 9, 2021
Christopher Hirschmann Brandt presents an extensive reflection-as-indictment on the practice of torture by nation states, and in particular the United States of America, which he calls home. Unlike many political leaders who use the first-person plural “we” to refer to their countries and their peoples in a patriotic tone, Hirschmann Brandt employs the collective “we” inversely to interrogate the repeated uses of torture to bring to light the urgent need for accountability. In doing so, the author provides a broader cultural and historical context required to understand the uses of torture by the United States along a far longer timeline with cited examples covering entire eras and centuries.

“We don’t torture people in America, and people who say we do simply know nothing about our country.” – George W. Bush, 2003.  (On the other hand, in 2014 Dick Cheney said there was no doubt the Shrub was fully aware of it, an “integral part” of its use.)  Barack Obama said, “We tortured some folks” and reduced the number of “acceptable” interrogation techniques.  But he declined to hold the torturers accountable because he wanted us to “look forward instead of looking backward.”  And Donald J. Trump was all in favor of torture; he said so many times, perhaps most famously in response to a reporter’s question: “Does it work? … Absolutely.”  In spite of these semi-admissions that we have been using torture, most Americans still believe we don’t.  That’s our story, and we’re sticking to it.  The problem is: Abu GhraibBagram.  CIA Black Sites in Jordan, Egypt, Romania, Poland.  The gulag at Guantánamo BayJohn Yoo and Jay Bybee and their torture memo providing legal cover.  Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell, the psychologists who “justified” and personally carried out the torture of Abu Zubayda (who was found – after additional torture sessions by CIA officers) – to have had no connection to Al Qaeda but is still held in our concentration camp at Guantánamo.)  And the testimony of all the other Gitmo prisoners who have been tortured during the past two decades.

Oops, guess we do torture.  So we change the narrative.  We say torture is not part of our heritage or our culture; this has been an anomaly.  The torturers were only following orders.  They thought they needed to, to save the country.  They had to, much as it hurt them, to save lives.  They were all scared and angry after the 9/11 attacks, and maybe they went a little too far.  They didn’t kill the victims, just brought them to the very edge of death.  (Of course there’s the nasty little problem that they did kill at least two.)  But “they” are we; if we would claim to be a democracy, we must own what is done in our names.  The stories we tell about ourselves as a shining city upon a hill are negated when we water board Abu Zubayda 83 times, when we brutally torture hundreds of men like Mohamedou Ould Slahi, Shaker Aamer and Mansoor Adayfi, when we hold Muslim men in awful conditions for over 15 years and don’t even charge them with anything but do deny them habeas corpus.  So do we stop torturing?  Nah, we double down on our story. That is not us, it was a few bad apples, blah blah blah. Torture is something the other guys do, back in the Dark Ages or in primitive countries in, say, the Middle East.  Or China.  It’s not us, it’s the other guys!  (But we make secret use of the “other guys” by renditioning our prisoners to their countries where they do the torturing for us.)

It’s time then, to look closely at our history – perhaps this whole 21st century thing is an anomaly.  Maybe we’ve been pure as the driven snow until we were viciously attacked using passenger airliners as weapons.  Really, we’re the good guys; we were attacked and maybe we overreacted a little.  But even good guys have their limits.  We’re sorry and we promise we’ll never do it again.  Let’s not dwell on this uncharacteristic recent past; rather let us look to the future, as Obama urged.  But not so fast please.  Let us indeed hold off looking at the past 20 years.  But let’s take a hard look at our earlier clean, innocent, no-torture history – all the way back to 1619.  Then we’ll know these two decades were outliers.

There is a sickening description of a man being tortured to death in New England colonist William Hubbard’s Narrative of the Troubles with the Indians in New England.[1]   The torture occurred during King Phillip’s War in 1675; the tortured man is a Narragansett, and the torturers are Mohegans.  I’ll spare you the details so you won’t throw up on the paper or computer where you are reading this.  What is curious about the scene is that at least one colonist, and likely more, witnessed the entire thing, from the first cut to the final murder.  Hubbard did not witness the scene himself, which must have taken between a quarter and half an hour, but the detail in his narration means his informant or informants watched fascinated, neither turning away nor trying to intervene.  As Jill Lepore tells us in her fine study The Name of War on another occasion when the colonists “burned hundreds of women and children trapped in a compound, the Naragansetts backed off, crying ‘Mach it, mach it; that is, It is naught, it is naught, because it is too furious, and slays too many.’”  The colonists also enslaved many of the indigenous, and even sold them into slavery in other colonies and countries.  They also indulged in such practices as displaying enemy Indians’ heads on pikes, and isolating people on a barren island in Boston Harbor and leaving them there to starve (and those were so-called “Christian Indians”.)   So yes, the early colonists resorted to acts of torture both physical and mental.

But as Lepore reveals, what most engaged the colonists was narrating the events of King Philip’s War to their own advantage.  It was civilized Christians versus brutal barbarians, the bearers of culture versus savage beasts.  The Indigenous also told the story their way, of course, but the colonists had a tool (or weapon) the indigenous could not match – literacy and the European tradition of written history.  Their chronicles – and there were plenty of them – minimized and justified their own atrocities and condemned the natives’.  So it behooves us to read our received history skeptically; fortunately we have guides like Lepore, who gets as close to the truth as the partial record allows.

We needn’t resort to the contemporaneous histories however; we can go straight to the document every US citizen is supposed to have read, the Declaration of Independence, which is a great document of social evolution, alongside such others as the Magna Carta and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  But the Declaration’s bill of indictments against King George III ends with the accusation that he “has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”  That alone is a justification of the destruction of indigenous societies; naming the “Indians” merciless savages dehumanizes them and leads to the utterance of Congressman James M. Cavanaugh (or perhaps General Phillip Sheridan) and repeated uncountable times, most famously by Teddy Roosevelt: “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.”

Of course the phrase “undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions” describes equally what we did to the indigenous populace.  History is indeed written by the victors, but the victor’s descendants can, and must, correct it.­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­  We have committed “crimes that would disgrace a nation of savages,” as Frederick Douglass told us in his famous Fourth of July speech; our job is to examine our history from the perspective of its victims and repair the damage we have done, if we can.  That’s not possible for the many who died in bondage or by lynching or mass murder, but their descendants, who continue to be disadvantaged by past public policies, can possibly still experience the kind of justice and equality we claim in our pledge of allegiance to the flag.

There is plenty of evidence that the founding generation knew perfectly well that they were torturing, though they called it by other names.  In one of Jefferson’s drafts of the Declaration, he wrote that King George had “waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation hither.”  Yep, Jefferson knew enslaving people was what we today would call a crime against humanity; he indicted Britain for it, and he even tried to get a clause against slavery into the Constitution.  But he “owned” over 600 enslaved human beings during his lifetime, without whom he could not have built Monticello or the University of Virginia, nor furnished them with the finest imported accoutrements, libraries and wines, nor had the comfort of the still young and beautiful Sally Hemmings in his old age.

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­We tend to think of torture as a means to a particular end, usually either to extract information or to punish an enemy.  The latter we have declared a war crime, but we glorify the former with TV shows like 24 and films like Zero Dark Thirty.  And we justify it, or at least excuse it, with lawyerly legerdemain.  We don’t like doing it, but we must, for one urgent reason or another, have the information only the subject of our ministrations can supply.  The problem is, it has been shown over and over that such information is far more easily and accurately obtained by building rapport with the prisoner, is almost always useless for intelligence purposes, and is never admissible in a court of law.  The reason for that is simple; as Shakespeare put it in Merchant of Venice, “I fear you speak upon the rack, where men enforced do speak anything.”

Let us pay no heed then to the reasons and rationalizations, the legal gibberish and the ticking time bomb, and examine torture an sich.  It must have another purpose than information, no matter how many rationalizations it’s overlaid with.  To reduce the tortured to complete subjection?  To convince the torturer of his own power?  To exercise a sadistic perversion, with the pain itself as the objective?  Orwell cuts through the mental fog in 1984 – the purpose of torture is torture, period.  And Kate Millett, in her magisterial study The Politics of Cruelty (W.W.Norton, 1994) examines in excruciating detail how the torturers achieve this, from the piling of pain on top of pain, to complete sensory deprivation.  It is to deny the person subjected to it all agency, to strip him of all choice, to force him to the realization that he has no humanity left, to gain complete control over the other.  For this complete domination, the one being tortured must reach a point where she knows she cannot change the outcome no matter what she does, that the outcome is her utter subjugation to the torturer’s will or whim, that the only other choice she has is death.  Like a person enslaved, the tortured has only one weapon, the word “no” as long as he can sustain it.  The prisoner becomes totally dependent on his torturers, a situation beautifully – and horrifyingly – limned in Mario Benedetti’s brilliant play Pedro y el capitán, in which the relationship is revealed to be a perverse Halloween-house mirror image of love.*[2]

Let us agree on a definition; let us say that torture is the conscious humiliation and dehumanization of the tortured by the torturer.  That this is accomplished by the infliction of pain upon another’s body and mind, by which the torturer manifests total power over the other.  And let us further agree that, though plenty of torture occurs in private, or en famille, what we are interested in is the use of torture as a state policy, the use of torture authorized by the laws and powers of the country.

If the cruelties of our enslavement of Africans had been purely private, like the Long Island couple who chained their Filipina maid in their basement, we could, for the purposes of this essay, ignore them.  The couple were tried and convicted as individuals.  But the kidnapping and enslavement of Africans was sanctioned by the state – by many nation-states in fact, and in the U.S. there were laws governing the sale and punishment of enslaved persons.  Under the Louisiana Civil Code of 1825 for example, if a master was ′convicted of cruel treatment′, the judge could order the sale of the mistreated slave.  Certain “transgressions” could be punished by a prescribed number of strokes with the lash.  But there were almost no ill consequences for killing a slave “accidentally” during punishment.  No one who has seen the photograph of an enslaved man’s back, crisscrossed by severe welts in high relief, can doubt that torture was a regular part of American life and culture.  (His slave name was Gordon, obviously not his name, and that is another kind of torture, the refusal to acknowledge one’s name, and thereby one’s unique humanity.)  We could simply stop there and say, well yes we did use torture, and the enslavement of our fellow humans is our original sin, and we’re really really sorry, and can we stop now?

No we cannot.  We cannot let ourselves off the hook so easily.  Just off the top of my head, deriving from one or another of the stories and popular histories I’ve soaked up over the years, I can list a whole series of tortures practiced by this country’s early European settler/colonists. The stocks.  Stoning and crushing bodies.  Beating.  Burning.  Branding.  Mutilation.  Hanging.  The lash.  Forced labor.  Rape, especially of enslaved persons.  The separation of families.  The Trail of Tears.  Massacres of First Nations people as at Sand Creek, and of Blacks as at Elaine and Rosewood and Tulsa (and many more).  Concentration camps for Japanese Americans during WWII. These were all presented to me in both high school and college as parts of separate stories, mostly passed over without examination; it is only in listing them all together that we can see the full horror we visit upon one another even as we claim to be doing so as a punishment by law, or as an unquestioned common practice.

For once we had begun, we couldn’t stop.  Our prisons have often been torture chambers, and not only in Chicago.  So have many “hospitals for the mentally impaired”.  There are photographs from 1901, of our soldiers waterboarding a Moro “rebel” in the Philippines.  E. E. Cummings’ great poem “I sing of Olaf glad and big” shows us better than any historical account that conscientious objectors were tortured during WWI.  To those earlier tortures we have added prolonged solitary confinement and “enhanced interrogation techniques”.  And we have always subjected migrant workers to conditions that come close to torture.

It is within that great American tradition that April Glaspie, later the CIA Director, destroyed incriminating tapes of the torture practiced on suspected “terrorists” (including Zubayda) over which she presided in Thailand.  When Varian Fry was smuggling refugees out of Marseilles in 1940 and 41, he was called in for questioning by the Vichy Police Captain de Rodellac du Porzic.  When he asked for proof of any charges against him, the Captain replied, “In the new France, we do not need proof.  In the days of the Republic, it used to be believed that it was better to let a hundred criminals escape than to arrest one innocent man.  We have done away with all that.  We believe it is better to arrest a hundred innocent men than to let one criminal escape.”[3]  That’s the Fascist mind-set, and we are one of its progenitors.  The Nazis developed their Aryan-race laws by studying and copying our Jim Crow laws, and their policy of mass extermination by copying our treatment of Indigenous peoples; Hitler praised our near-genocide of the First Nations in Mein KampfRoland Freisler, the vicious president of the Nazi People’s Court said that US jurisprudence “would suit us perfectly.”  Yet some parts of our laws were too much, even for the Nazis; they balked at the severity of our miscegenation laws, such as the “one drop” rule, and the draconian prison terms and even death penalties for “race mixing.”

Since torture is against our natures as humans, it must be codified in law and justified by public argument.  The Nazis did both via the Nuremberg Laws, and we have done likewise throughout our history.  Let us acknowledge that fact and own our history – that’s the only way to change its course.

Perhaps we can learn from those we’ve abused.  In Nicaragua during the Sandinista Revolutionary Era, there was a young man by the name of Orlando Tardencilla who had gone, on his own, to join the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) combatting the plutocratic authoritarian regime in El Salvador, and been captured.  He was subjected to a range of tortures, from jackboot attacks to electrically live needles under his fingernails.  He observed that the most excruciating tortures were not the fists and kicks, but the accumulation of ever smaller amounts of pain, until even the threat of a tiny increase in the voltage sent through those needles created a Himalaya of pain.  Tardencilla might have been broken, as so many were, but he was an intelligent young man, and when a new torturer with slightly accented Spanish appeared, and asked whether he would testify that he had been sent to El Salvador as part of an attempt by the Sandinista government of Nicaragua to export communist revolution, Tardencilla knew the new man had to be CIA.  So instead of denying the involvement of the FSLN, he said no, he could not betray his friends.  He stuck to that position but gave his interlocutor reason to believe that he was slowly weakening.  Long story short, he eventually “agreed” to testify, was taken to Washington, and once he got in front of the media scrum, blew the whole thing wide open.  When he returned to Nicaragua, a national hero, he was asked by a reporter whether he wanted revenge for the suffering he had undergone.  His answer was both chilling and inspiring: No, he said, he would never do to anyone else what had been done to him, “not even to them.”  From many who have undergone torture we can learn the hardest thing of all – forgiveness.  Let us heed those who have taught themselves to forgive, their number is many – Mohamedou Ould Slahi, Shaker Aamer and others from Guantanamo, Tomas Borge of Nicaragua, Sister Dianna Ortiz, Pepe Mujica and his comrades in Uruguay, many who have been aided by the centers for the victims of torture in Sweden and Canada.  Maybe, if we can get past our history of inflicting pain, we can even learn to forgive ourselves.

The views, perspectives and opinions presented in this piece are the author’s own. 


[1] quoted in Jill Lepore, The Name of War, Vintage Books, 1999

[2] To understand how deeply the attitude that leads to torture is baked into our culture, take a look at the history of our US relations with Latin America, and we can see it as this sort of torture: sanctions and embargoes (Venezuela recently, Nicaragua in 1984, Cuba since 1960), covert disruption (Guatemala 1954, Bolivia 1960 and 2019, Dominican Republic 1960, Brazil 1964, Chile 1970-73, Venezuela 2002, Honduras 2007 many other examples), military force (Grenada 1983, Panama 1989, Cuba 1960, etc.), added to the economic predations of Milton Freidman’s “Chicago Boys” and their “structural adjustments” and “austerity measures”, and of the “Vultures” like Paul Singer – these are the pain.  The OAS, USAID, “foreign aid” – these are the “good guy” faces of our Janus-like policies.  Of course we cover our asses well, so war criminals like Henry Kissinger, Oliver North, Ronald Reagan, Dick Cheney et alii can have “plausible deniability”, but even scores of veiled assholes behind the curtain cannot hide the fact that our military has taught methods of torture to generations of Latin American police and army officers at the School of the Americas (now renamed WHINSEC – Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation – in a P.R. attempt to hide its true purpose).  But torturers were trained there.  And CIA agents like Dan Mitrione in Uruguay and Glaspie wherever she was, have been hands-on torturers.

[3] Varian Fry, Assignment: Rescue, Scholastic Book Services, 1945

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About the Contributor

<a href="" target="_self">Christopher Hirschmann Brandt</a>

Christopher Hirschmann Brandt

Christopher Hirschmann Brandt is a New York City writer, translator, and political activist. Also an actor, theatre worker, carpenter, furniture designer. He teaches poetry workshops and Peace and Justice Studies at Fordham University. Poems and essays have been published abroad in, among others, Laterál (Barcelona); El signo del gorrión (Valladolid); Liqueur 44 (Paris); La Jornada (Mexico); and in the US in Poiesis, Syndic, …and Then, Phati'tude, Appearances; The Unbearables; Big City Lit, and in the anthologies Crimes of the Beats (Unbearables), Classics in the Classroom (Teachers and Writers) and Off the Cuffs: Poetry by and About the Police (Soft Skull, ed. Jackie Sheeler). His translations of Cuban fiction have been published in The New Yorker and by Seven Stories Press; his translations of Cuban poets are included in The Whole Island (Berkeley, ed. Mark Weiss), and he translated four collections of poetry by the late Puerto Rican poet and teacher Carmen Valle. In 2017 Medicine Show Theatre Ensemble in New York City commissioned and produced his new translation of Albert Camus’ Caligula. Seven Stories Press published his translation of Clara Nieto’s Masters of War, a history of U.S. interventions in Latin America since 1959.