The Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution, ratified in 1791, prohibits the use of ‘cruel and unusual punishments’. General Order No. 100 (the Lieber Code of 1863) declares that ‘military necessity does not admit of cruelty’ and explicitly bars American soldiers from torture. The UN Convention Against Torture, which the United States signed in 1988, stipulates an absolute ban on torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishments. Yet, as W. Fitzhugh Brundage amply demonstrates in Civilizing Torture: An American tradition, the United States has used torture at home and abroad for centuries.
Physical and psychological torment helped subjugate indigenous and enslaved populations, underpinned the formation of the carceral state, and has long been an instrument in America’s military adventures, particularly in the developing world. Yet notions of national exceptionalism have led many Americans to insist that the United States is a ‘unique nation with uniquely humane laws and principles’. Thus, despite international revulsion at the horrors inflicted by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, President George W. Bush still maintained that ‘any activity we conduct, is within the law. We do not torture.’