Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Torturing Our History

Revelations that detainees at Guantanamo were waterboarded hundreds of times have brought torture screaming back into the headlines.

How far our country has strayed from its founding ideals! George Washington, after capturing a thousand Hessians at Trenton, commanded his subordinates to “Treat them with humanity, and let them have no reason to Complain of our Copying the brutal example of the British Army,” who were notorious for maltreating POWs aboard their prison ships.

As Chair of the Board of War and Ordnance, John Adams complained of hearing “continual accounts of the barbarities, the cruel murder in cold blood, even by the most tormenting ways of starving and freezing, committed by our enemies” and advised a policy of “Yankee virtue” toward captives in American hands. During the War of 1812, President James Madison called torture an “outrage against the laws of honorable war and against the feelings sacred to humanity.”

Sentiments like these were codified in Lincoln’s administration under the “General Orders No. 100” which affirmed that “Military necessity does not admit of cruelty—that is, the infliction of suffering for the sake of suffering or for revenge, nor of maiming or wounding except in fight, nor of torture to extort confessions.” Lincoln’s humane policy became a model for other European nations and eventually for the Geneva Conventions.

Can America regain its moral bearing? Even President Obama, who has favored a policy of “let bygones by bygones,” is now hinting there may need to be criminal investigations of interrogations that took place in the Bush years. But first, Obama may need to clean up his own act. Both Aljazeera and Democracy Now report that torture may be continuing at Guantanamo. According to Democracy Now, “Another Guantanamo Bay prisoner has come forward to back accounts of worsening torture since President Obama took office.”

Gitmo inmate Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif, in a letter to his attorney, asks, “America, what has happened to you?” It’s a question a question every citizen should be asking.

(For a full article on America’s Founding Fathers and the policy of “harsh interrogation,” see an article I wrote for Tikkun last fall titled “Torturing Our History.” You can access the magazine online at

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