Q&A: W. Fitzhugh Brundage

Sam Watts interviewed historian and long-time friend of ANZASA, W. Fitzhugh Brundage about his latest book, Civilizing Torture: An American Tradition (Harvard University Press, 2018) in May 2019. W. Fitzhugh Brundage is the William B. Umstead Professor of History at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has also published widely on Civil War and Reconstruction memory, lynching and nineteenth century socialist utopianism in the South.


SW: Thanks for your time. What brought you to write about the history of debates surrounding torture?

WFB: My earliest research was on the topic of lynching, I studied a tragic and violent chapter of American history early in my career and so when the first reports of what happened in Abu Ghraib and Afghanistan started to emerge and I heard some of the public debate about the topic, I was particularly struck by those people who were saying that what happened in Abu Ghraib and Iraq and Afghanistan was contrary to American values and American history. And you may know that back in 2004 that when the photos first came out of Abu Ghraib people quickly started comparing them to lynching photographs and in some ways I thought that was entirely appropriate because of some of the imagery and symbolism. So when I heard people saying that – including John McCain saying, ‘Americans don’t torture, this is contrary to American values’ – as you would imagine as somebody who studied lynching, I thought ‘Well, I know what you mean but that’s not really true.’ I thought it was such a singular moment that I went to the library and looked for books on torture in the United States and didn’t find anything and so that’s really the origin of it, it took me a long time to write it as I had other things I was working on but I returned to it in 2011 and worked on it till this past year. If I hadn’t done on lynching in the first place I don’t know, I still would’ve been interested, but I don’t think I would’ve written the book that I wrote.

SW: So given that work on lynching earlier in your career and also more recent research on Civil War and Reconstruction memory, you obviously came to the project with no illusions about the history of violence in America. Was there anything in the project that surprised you? In the writing or research process, was there anything that changed any preconceptions you had?

WFB: What surprised me most I think was the success of this repeated narrative that Americans tell themselves that whenever we do torture it truly is exceptional to our nature – you know I don’t think it’s singular to the United States. I think somebody could do a comparative history, say, of British influenced democracies and torture, I think you’d find a similar history. The English pride themselves on the rule of law yet we know that the British were quite willing to use torture in Kenya or Northern Ireland and it’s always seen to be somehow exceptional, they’re driven to it by extraordinary circumstances.

I suspect that’s true of any democracy because torture is so antithetical to democracy, or to what we assume democracy to be, so I guess that’s the roundabout way of saying what surprised me most the extent to which torture is externalised even by scholars. I was dumbfounded that there is really no good scholarly study of what we call the third degree in the United States, that is police violence interrogating alleged suspects. There is some for the South but it’s put within the context of Southern race relations, as though it’s a peculiarity to the way African Americans are treated (and certainly that’s true) but the third degree was virtually universal in the United States to varying degrees, from city to city, from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but if you try and find scholarship on the third degree, you can’t. That’s extraordinary to me.

SW: There were lots of things in the book that really fascinated me but the links between the criminal justice system, mass incarceration and torture seemed to be very important. You highlight the role of torture as a tool for gaining successful prosecution through a plea deal within the context of a systemically underfunded criminal justice system and you’ve got good evidence of this throughout the twentieth century and throughout the US as well.

WFB: Well if you plead guilty, there’s really no opportunity for judicial review unless somehow the victim of torture can convince someone that there actually was torture which only happens in extraordinary instances – like in the case of Chicago where the police department was so or I should say that some policemen were so over the top. If they had shown any restraint whatsoever they could’ve presumably gone on for the rest of their careers, but they truly crossed a boundary that they left so much evidence of their violence that even a court system inclined to look the other way, couldn’t. The case of Chicago, it’s pretty extreme because of the interrelationship between the Democratic political machine, the police department, and the States Attorney. In a case like Los Angeles, it’s a rather different point, which is that Los Angeles has had a lot of problems but there I think it’s because of such dispersal of police authority and power across so many entities in the Los Angeles metropolitan area that if there is some entity within that network of government institutions it wants to prosecute it often doesn’t have the authority. So for example in Los Angeles, the police department has had problems but so has the Sheriff’s department – they overlap but they have separate jurisdictions.

SW: If you were going to compare policing in the two countries, Australia is very concentrated in that we have a handful rather than hundreds of police forces making oversight easier (because there is one agency to investigate) but at the same time you are also coming up against a whole wave of institutional power then and that allows for torture and abuse to be swept under the carpet perhaps more effectively.

WFB: Right, so in the United States, the point that I tried to emphasise over and over again in the book, goes back to a point that a sociologist David Garland has made about the death penalty and that is that dispersal of power in the United States means that it means that we don’t have one concentrated centre of power that can be held responsible for abuses which can have its benefits but that dispersal can then make it much harder to identify responsibility, to assign responsibility and to prevent abuses because it’s like whack-a-mole – it’s over here, it’s over there, it never seems to be integrated in any way, it doesn’t seem to have the same catalyst, and yet I think it’s always an expression of the power that we have dispersed to all of these authorities.

SW: I thought the final chapter of the book was fairly powerful, particularly in your use of Hannah Arendt and the idea of the bureaucratization of modern society, which makes it incredibly hard to prosecute these cases. I also think the temporal scope is one of the most impressive things about the book, you manage to cover such vast ground in quite a short space. You begin by discussing European colonial violence in North America, and the role of torture in Native American societies during this period. Could you explain how the two traditions of torture met each other and evolved in that early period?

WFB: I should be clear that I am there walking in the footprints of all these other scholars who have gone before, but the spin that I have put on it is that there was the meeting of two traditions of torture that were similar in a number of ways, they were mutually identifiable as torture and could be understood as being close enough, but they were different in some very important ways. The traditions that confined and directed Indian torture were rooted in warfare which Europeans could probably understand to a degree, but they were also rooted in what I would almost call diplomacy and I don’t think that was a side that Europeans could understand. These rituals served to allow different Indian nations to communicate to their enemies the different values of their societies. I don’t think Europeans used torture that same way. From the point of view of the Europeans, torture was rooted in a system of discovering truth as they saw it – and I don’t think for Indians they thought of it as having any judicial purpose whatsoever. It was part of a different cosmology. So I think it’s a classic case where it’s as though they were speaking similar enough languages that they could superficially understand each other but what they didn’t understand about each other was profoundly important. But from the point of view of Europeans it was how quickly they were able to reframe Indian violence to fit into these ideas about savagery and in some ways to exaggerate the significance of it for Indians – it’s not as though it wasn’t important – but they made it out as though it was a thoughtless, primitive, animalistic activity as opposed to something which was as much a part of a system, as was European torture.

SW: So, you kind of touched on this, how Europeans justified the use of torture against Native Americans in this era. The cases you point out – Hannah Duston and the Paxton Boys for instance are incredibly brutal and disturbing – does it set a precedent for American history that there is this definition of savagery belonging to others regardless of the nature of violence that is meted out by the ‘civilised.’

WFB: It sets up a binary. Once Europeans are starting to try to distinguish themselves from all others that they don’t want to be associated with and that they want to see themselves as superior to, whether it be the Ottomans (they built up a whole repertoire of stories about the violence of the Ottomans) or Indigenous people, once they start to do that, then you can see the systematising of knowledge of all other peoples in an emerging hierarchy of civilisation. If you want to see yourselves as being part of a progressive God ordained mission to civilise, Christianise the world etc, you have – it seems to me – a number of broad paths. One of them is to say somehow we are going to exemplify these values and embody them in a manner in which we would never adopt any of the methods of the ‘savage.’ The other is to say that in order for us to be safe we may have to treat the ‘savage’ the way he deserves to be treated and so it becomes exculpatory. To be able to define this other group as deserving of whatever violence you resort to, because they have brought it upon themselves by refusing to accept civilisation and so in that regard I think that’s part of the reason I use the Paxton Boys because their solution is very simple – essentially it’s a form of ethnic cleansing or genocide and Benjamin Franklin’s alternative is one that you could trace throughout American history of people saying, ‘No, we don’t do that’ – it’s not that he was necessarily fully enlightened in the ways that we might like him to be but that in the end his ethnocentrism was one that would’ve restrained violence as opposed to justified it.

SW: Even if they were in the minority, opponents of torture and their arguments, mounted by abolitionists and anti-imperialists, get a thorough discussion in your book. For instance Herbert Welsh, the anti-war activist who campaigned against American involvement in the Philippines, is a really fascinating figure.

WFB: Yeah, I wouldn’t go so far to say that he is a hero because there are sides to him which are problematic, in the history of American Indians he was a very problematic figure because he was the classic case of a late nineteenth century white paternalist but at the same time I think of him as being truly tireless, and on this subject as it probably comes through I thought he was truly remarkably eloquent. I think there are combinations of things that come together: part of it is religiously inspired, as is often the case – not in the case of Benjamin Franklin – but often with the abolitionists there’s a sense of shared humanity rooted in Christianity that’s inspiring this idea. Opponents of torture have to find some resource outside of the political discourse of the day – they have to find some moral center elsewhere. In addition, there’s a way in which they have a selective reading of the American democratic tradition, like John McCain did. It has its utility and it has its limits which is one of the points I wanted to make in the book. It can produce a kind of blindness, but for these people instead it produces a kind of urgency that we must fulfil American principles and sometimes it means you have to have a ‘Golden Age’.

There are people like Welsh who think that somehow there has been a deterioration of American democracy and so torture was a manifestation of that deterioration. There is a kind of naivety, but on the other hand it’s using that sense of an American tradition and turning it against what they see as a corruption of that tradition. I think it is important to have that fiction, but one of the things that I wanted to do with the book was to make it clear that George W. Bush and his cronies could have made a very compelling argument – they didn’t do this because they weren’t historically literate – but if they wanted to they could have said: ‘You know we have this tradition in this country that when we have to take whatever measures are needed to protect democracy we will do it.

SW: Probably not politically sound I’d guess…

WFB: Oh probably not, but when they were making their internal legal justifications they were incredibly inept in certain ways and there are ways in which they could have – it’s not like I want to help people do this – but there’s a way in which everybody involved in the debate over enhanced interrogation were reinventing the wheel and all parties would have been helped if they were more historically informed but of course that’s a historian saying that so, I’m inclined to say that…

SW: Since Abu Ghraib and going forward, do you think these debates will play out differently given the ability of people to capture and immediately upload these kind of abuses. How has technology changed things? If you think about the Iraq War, those images which were played on CNN and broadcast across millions of screens, changed the course of the war and changed the debate.

WFB: Well, I think you’re right and that’ll be interesting to see, but the one thing I would say is that’s where we have to remember that it’s hard to know – with lynching photos it’s hard to read their direct impact – so that I would agree, I think some of the images of Abu Ghraib were so profoundly repellent so it’s hard to know who could justify or excuse them, but I think there could easily be other images that could come out and I assume there were other images circulating in the military – military personnel having killed people and taken photos – and those might circulate without prompting the same response. I think your point is certainly true that now there are ways in which there can be an evidentiary trail that didn’t used to be the case, but then again coming back to Chicago. One of the telling things was that the Chicago police torture – I didn’t go into this because of space in the book – but the Chicago police torture story was not broken by the Chicago Tribune or the Chicago Sun Times – it was done by the Chicago Reader which is a free formerly underground newspaper and the Tribune and the Sun Times were very late to cover it. So part of it is you’d have to have – and this is where you’re right social media could change it to the extent that social media can create an audience that doesn’t exist through the conventional media – but the point was up through the 1990s in Chicago, conventional media television and newspapers perpetuated the problem there.

SW: I think one of the important points that you make is pointing out that documenting isn’t enough to stop torture and when I think of police violence in the US, there are countless videos of people that have filmed themselves and while they do often get circulated, it doesn’t necessarily change the debate.

WFB: Yes, and if you think of how many instances there have been in the last three or four years, when there has been footage that would seem to be just incredibly compelling evidence of police wrongdoing and the police officer responsible is not convicted and found not guilty.

One criticism – I’m sure there are many fair criticisms you could make of my book – but one that is certainly fair is that my tendency is to believe you could say I have laid out the cases in order to emphasise the probability that the acts that I am describing were torture. Now, one thing that I was careful about, I don’t ever talk about instances of violence that contemporaries themselves didn’t describe as torture. It was very important to me to use the contemporary usages, an apologist could say: ‘look in the Philippines, you’re using the testimony of the court martial and then ignoring what the court martial itself then determined, they were a body of peers and they concluded that this person did not commit a war crime and yet you are relitigating it and ignoring their conclusions.’ And that’s certainly true, I have read this historical record emphasising patterns that I see, that another person might see as disparate, uncommon, exceptional events. So, broadly speaking, I have adopted that perspective of Herbert Welsh and others and I plead guilty, but what I hope happens is that if the book has any impact, as I hope people will in the various periods of time or whatever methodology they do, try and take it apart because that will stimulate scholarship on a topic which I think warrants it – I would like a lot more scholarship on the Third Degree, just to understand much more on how courts ignored the Third Degree the way they did. I’m not enough of a legal historian to understand that, but I would like to know when and why some courts would take up cases of coerced testimony and rule it out – there are some amazing instances where they do it, where they take a very proactive stance, whereas in others they don’t. Anyway, I do hope that if nothing else it inspires some people to dig into these various chapters.

SW: I did want to ask about one more aspect of the book, in many ways this is a discussion of the historical memory of torture which relates to some of your earlier research. Where is the place of torture in American historical memory generally?

WFB: That’s a great question. The dangerous aspect of a kind of mythic American innocence, that someone like John McCain and others have appealed to, is that it means that you always have to have torture on the margins; it always has to be done by bad people doing the wrong thing. It’s very hard for us to recognise that (and this is where I come back to Stanley Milgram’s experiment) anybody could engage in torture – maybe not systematically, maybe not an extended time, but maybe all of us have the capacity at a particular moment and time and circumstance to do it, so that rather than seeing it as something that is somehow external to us, not just individually but also as a society, we should see it as a looming capability, consequently, as something that is a recurring challenge in American society. We could acknowledge that we have a history of torture that is part of our nation’s history that sheds light on the virtues of our system of government and some of our principles, but also sheds light on the flaws of our principles and form of government, doing that would allow us to be more historically grounded and recognise the full breadth of our history in a way that we prefer not to but it would allow us to be more vigilant about torture than we otherwise are likely to be. Instead, there is a tendency to have the debate about torture as though we have no history of it. One thing about Abu Ghraib and Iraq is that there were people like Paul Kramer, a historian at Vanderbilt, who wrote a piece in the New Yorker, there were historians who were saying ‘Look at the Philippines’ but that only happened in a way after the fact and nobody in the centers of power in DC was paying any attention to that, so in essence they had to educate the public about a history that should not be unfamiliar to anybody that went through a high school history class.

SW: At the same time, the American role in the Philippines does go against two major narratives in American historical consciousness, one, that America doesn’t torture and, two, that America has never been an Empire.

WFB: That’s absolutely right

SW: Thanks so much for a really thoughtful interview.

WFB: My pleasure.