Torture In American History


It is, sadly, a simple fact that torture was once a deep part of the American way of life, inextricable from slavery and racism, for a very long time. It was worst in the South, but not unknown elsewhere - well into the twentieth century. The ease with which some in the new GOP reconcile themselves to it with respect to terror suspects, as long as it is directed at "the other," cannot be fully understood outside this context. "Waterboarding," for example, a torture technique the majority of GOP candidates cannot bring themselves to condemn and which the new attorney-general refuses to declare illegal, was used against African-Americans to extract false confessions in the South. And lynching was often accompanied by gruesome torture. A reader writes:

The ugly truth is that for the 100 years between the end of the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, this country committed torture against thousands of its own citizens.

White Southerners, faced with the specter of black economic mobility, developed a variety of methods to squelch these advancements, the most violent and dehumanizing of which was the spectacle lynching. The term lynching evokes a scene of spontaneous violence hastily committed by small group of hysterical citizens, but the sad reality is that a typical lynching was a deliberate, organized ritual that unfolded over the course of days or weeks, often in collusion with local law enforcement.

Newspapers advertised the event and thousands of spectators attended with wives and children in tow, snapping photographs, purchasing concessions and memorabilia, and eagerly discussing the means of execution. Hanging was the most common method, but lynchings incorporated a combination of torture techniques including castration, branding with hot irons, eye-gouging, severing of appendages and burning alive. In some cases, spectators rummaged through the leftover ashes searching for grim souvenirs.

At one particularly notorious lynching in Paris, Texas, the crowd numbered 10,000. Take a moment to let that number sink in. 10,000 men, women and children munched on popcorn and snapped photos as a black man was tortured and burned alive.

This is our legacy. And it goes a long way toward explaining the synthesis of "today's Dixie-based, pro-torture, anti-immigrant GOP."

(Photo: The bludgeoned body of an African American male, propped in a rocking chair, blood splattered clothes, white and dark paint applied to the face and head, shadow of man using rod to prop up the victims head. Circa 1900, location unknown. From a real, photo postcard that Americans once sent one another.)

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