Torture Nation, Torture Law
56 Pages Posted: 10 Sep 2008 Last revised: 22 Apr 2009
Date Written: September 8, 2008
U.S. law plainly forbids something called "torture." Some writers even contend the ban on torture is foundational to the idea of the United States as a liberal democratic state committed to individual rights and the rule of law. The revelations of torture and other forms of mistreatment by U.S. forces at places such as Abu Ghraib thus undermine what these writers characterize as American leadership on human rights and call the nation's identity into question.
Most readers will sympathize with these claims. This essay, by contrast, suggests that torture may be compatible with American values in practice and with the legal system we have constructed to serve those values. Put another way, many fear that the revelations of abuses committed in the war on terror put the U.S. at risk of becoming a torture nation. This essay explores the ways in which the U.S. is already a torture nation and suggests that being a torture nation could be as important a part of the U.S. legal and political system as the ban on torture.
To guide that exploration, I illustrate some of the ways in which past practice and mainstream legal doctrine provide a solid foundation for the abuses of the war on terror. The first part of this essay traces some of the history of torture and related forms of abuse in U.S. foreign policy, followed by a description of the law and practice of police and prison violence, and concluding with immigration. Part Two examines the interaction of U.S. and international law in the context of torture, primarily through a detailed examination of U.S. ratification of the Convention Against Torture and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Part Three concludes the essay by drawing explicit connections between these precedents and the perceived excesses of the war on terror.
My goal is not to make a normative argument about the condition of U.S. law and practice. Nor am I suggesting that they are pernicious or evil. At most, I am arguing that the U.S. is an entirely typical modern state in its use of torture. I seek primarily to fix the distorted picture sketched by rhetorical responses to the abuses of the war on terror. The examples I offer are not themselves a complete picture, of course, but no account of U.S. law and practice relating to torture can be complete without them. Grappling with a more complex representation of how violence colors U.S. law and politics is difficult, but scholarly analysis of these issues requires the effort. What, if anything, readers do with the resulting picture is a question beyond the scope of this essay.
Keywords: torture, constitutional law, treaties
JEL Classification: K19
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation