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Evolution of Views on Tortures in America

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The dictionary defines torture as the action or practice of inflicting severe pain on someone as a punishment, to fore them to do or say, or for the pleasure of the person inflicting the pain. While there are many different types and scales of torture, torture is anything that impedes on another person’s basic human rights. There are many different types of torture. Human Rights Education released a document called “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights”. In this document, there are thirty rights given to every human ( Ito). The fifth of these thirty is “freedom from torture and degrading treatment”. The United Nations agree, they say humans have the right to live life with freedom from torture and slavery. The Human Rights Convention (ECHR) links torture to any act that can be classified as “degrading treatment” (“Legal Prohibition Against Torture”). Based on the definition of torture from the Human Rights Education, The United Nations, and the Human Rights Convention, any treatment that an individual gives another that is degrading or painful classifies as torture and is an evident violation of that person’s basic human rights (“Convention against Torture…”). Based on this definition the American government has, and is continuing to torture, countless people. Torture is not only currently used by the American government but it is also viewed as a “necessary evil” and yet torture was explicitly outlawed in the founding documents, is not effective and violates the basic rights of any person.

The United States of America is a charter member of the United Nations. As such the American government needs to rethink some of the actions they have taken. The United States government has sanctioned torture in numerous ways. The first is direct involvement in torturing prisoners of war. The American government allows screaming, loud sounds, environmental changes, and interrogations that can last up to twenty hours all of which can be classified as torture. Gul Rahman was killed while the CIA was interrogating him. Gul was forced to strip naked and had to spend the night in a freezing concrete room on the concrete floor. Based on the CIA’s own review and autopsy he died of hypothermia. Nobody was reprimanded after his death. America has indirect involvement in torture as well. There are many allies that are financially and economically protected by the United States that use torture. For example in Cuba, the CIA kept Abu Zubaydah in solitary confinement for twelve days after waterboarded and hit his head against a concrete wall repeatedly. Zubaydah now has permanent brain damage, loss of vision in his left eye and suffers daily seizures (“CIA Torture Report Fast Facts”). These types of actions should not be allowed by any government, especially one that is a key member of the United Nations who do not condone torture.

Outside of the laws put in place by the United Nations torture is directly referenced in the founding documents and is specifically denounced and outlawed. First, the eighth amendment of the constitution states that “cruel and unusual punishments should not be inflicted.” The constitution is clear here. The dictionary says that the phrase “cruel and unusual punishment” includes “torture, a deliberately degrading punishment or a punishment that is too severe for the crime committed.” The fifth amendment states that of the accused person “nor shall be compelled in a criminal case to be a witness against himself.” This is referencing the fact that prisoners used to be tortured until they admitted fault. The founding fathers did not want America to use torture, it does not allow for due process of the accused. John Jay, a wealthy American was in France trying to explain to the French government why torture was not necessary. Thomas Jefferson wrote him saying, “by allowing counsel to the prisoner for this defense; obligates the judges to specify in their judgments the offense for which he is condemned; and respiting execution a month, except in the case of sedition”(Cole). Jefferson is saying he does not approve of torture and it is more beneficial for a government to allow a prisoner to speak then to torture him until he admits fault. Similarly, Patrick Henry wrote, “What has distinguished our ancestors?-That they would not admit of tortures or cruel and barbarous punishment. But Congress may introduce the practice of the civil law, in preference to that of the common law”(Cole). It is clear that neither the Founding Fathers nor the founding documents of the United States supported torture.

Torture has evolved and changed since the founding fathers were alive, but the basic idea has stayed consistent. The founding fathers knew very well what torture was as they had seen it used throughout the Revolutionary War. Prisoners of the war were hit with the Cat-o-nine tails. It was a leather whip with nine strands each with little knots to allow for maximum damage when used on flesh (Schenawolf). The wooden horse is another torture technique that was used in America at the time. It was a long hard wooden plank sharpened to a point. It’s victims would have sit on it, and ‘ride’ it like a horse. The sharp point of the plank would cut through clothes and cut the genitalia of whoever sat on it. Tarring and feathering was other forms of torture used. Prisoners were literally covered in hot tar and then covered in feathers. It was a form of public humiliation and result in serious burns and even death. The Whirligig was a wooden cage that spun. The prisoner would be locked inside the cage and spun repeatedly (Schenawolf). Other forms of torture included being tied to a horse and dragged through camps as well as public nudity. While the founding fathers saw all of these different forms of torture used, they ultimately decided that torture would not be part of America’s future.

While it is clear that America is supposedly forbidden to use torture, other countries do not necessarily follow our laws, and some argue this is why America should be allowed to use inhumane methods to retrieve information. Human Rights Watch, says that there have been documented accounts of government sanctioned torture in China, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Malaysia, Morocco, Nepal, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Syria, Turkey, Uganda and Uzbekistan (“Legal Prohibition Against Torture”). These countries believe that it is ok to use torture on their enemies. Iran for example is one of the countries that view torture as a means of justice. In 2017, twenty-five people were sentenced to amputation, ninety-nine people received flogging, thirty-eight were tortured in prison and there were seven instances of public beatings (IranHRM). Mihrigul Tursan was a prisoner of the Chinese government, she says she was tortured beyond belief and states she would “rather die than have continued in her torture and begged them to kill her” (“Legal Prohibition Against Torture”). North Korea has some of the worst accounts of torture ever recorded. Prisoners are starved, beaten and humiliated by having to literally dig their own graves (Judd). While many other countries agree and engage in various forms of torture, the United Nations along with the United States denounce them. But how can we denounce others for using torture when we as a country use it as well?

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While other countries may not agree with the American policy on torture it is important that the United States be held to a higher standard. America became a nation because we decided to stand up against inequality. America showed the world after defeating Great Britain in the Revolutionary War that it is not ok for an individual to stand above another. From the moment America became a free nation, the world saw that our nation stands for equality among all men. The United States continues to be a beacon to other countries. Yearly, the United States gives billion of dollars to foreign aid. America sends specialists to other countries to help. The American government gives time, money and skills in order to help those in need. As a nation America is supposed to stand for freedom, equality and liberty. Yet, our nation is continuing to commit a crime, the crime of torture. This can no longer be the case, the United States can no longer take part in these horrendous acts. “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union establish justice.” Justice can no longer mean turning a blind eye to a ‘necessary evil’. Justice must mean showing, that no man can stand above another. America must end this evil, the evil of torture.

Since the founding documents, there have been many legislatures passed in order to keep America from using torture. The Anti-torture Act of 1985 states that torture of any kind is illegal and that it is to be prevented in “any territory under that country’s jurisdiction” (Ito). This for the United States means no torture is to be done by Americans, for Americans or in American territory, including Guantanamo Bay. The War Crimes Act was signed in 1996 and applies specifically to war, it means that the United States can not engage in any for of torture that as been defined in any Geneva Convention. The Military Commissions Act of 2006 states that detainees of the United States have the right to access federal courts in order to challenge their detentions. The McCain Amendment in the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 states that interrogations made by the United States must follow certain humane techniques (Clark). Overall, the United States should not be allowed to torture anyone, yet there are still various types of torture used by the United States and in the United States. W While some say torture is the only way to receive vital information from enemies, most agree that torture is not truly effective and rarely works fully in its intended use. In Shane O’Mara’s book Why Torture Doesn’t Work: The Neuroscience of Interrogation, torture is ultimately deemed as ineffective. O’Mara states that the stressors activated during torture prevent the human brain from being able to operate normally. He says that people ultimately become less responsive after torture as a result of chronic and extreme stress. Sleep deprivation for example causes the brain to fail when it comes to general cognitive function. Near-drowing torture also does not produce results. When the brain has lost or is not receiving oxygen, the memory-based region of the brain fails. The brain instead focuses on survival and restricts what is able to be immediately accessed or answer with comprehension any questions asked (Lowth). Evidence shows that it is far more likely one will receive false information during torture than reliable intell. T t The best way to retain information is through what is called the Sharff method. Hanns Sharff was an interrogator for the Nazi party in World War II. Shariff interrogated over five hundred American and British pilots who were highly trained on keeping secrets. Sharff would take the pilots on nice walks, give them good food and strike up friendly conversations. In the end, of the five hundred pilots Sharff only failed to receive the information he needed from twenty of them. Sharff had a simple successful technique. He would be kind, not press for information, ignore new information and act like he knew it all already. Sheriff’s method is often regarded as the most effective way to retain information (“Why Torture Doesn’t Work”). Overall, torture does not work and the Sharff’s method is a far more reliable way to ‘question’ and gain information from detainees. WW While torture is considered to be illegal in the United States, America has turned a blind eye to torture and has been caught violating the law. During World War II, Nazis were psychologically tortured at P.O. Box 1142 which is located in Washington D.C. Instead of beating the prisoners for information, they were threatened to be turned over to the Soviets. Where they would in fact have been brutally tortured and ultimately brutally killed (“POWs and Intel…”). German U-boat crewmen had also been captured by America. They went through “shock interrogation” which included, beatings and extreme physical exertion. Later, in the Vietnam War, the CIA created a program called the “Phoenix Program.” This program killed twenty-six thousand Vietnamese and tortured over sixty thousand. It was later learned that many of the people captured in this program were actually civilians (“A Retrospective on…”). Finally, from 1964 to 1985 the United States government taught the Brazillian military how to torture people in order to help with controlling regimes in South America. Not only has the United States government used torture in the past, but even worse we have taught other countries how to do the same.

While torture has been a big issue for America in the past, it is just as big of an issue now as it was fifty years ago. In America, a prisoner can be held in solitary confinement for up to fifteen days. This can cause serious mental issues to the prisoner in confinement and can very clearly be defined as inhumane torture. Major Khan, a United States prisoner was forced to undergo rectal feeding as well as rectal rehydration. Khan had no medical reason to be receiving his required nutrients this way. It was to show “total control over” him. Walid bin Attash was continually doused with cold water and then wrapped in plastic bags to him keep him cold for the first two weeks of his detention (“CIA Torture Report…”). Waterboarding is another key form of torture currently used by the United States government, it is were the prisoner’s face is covered with a cloth and water is poured over the face for about fourty seconds. Abu Zubaydah, a key influencer in the 9/11 attacks was subjected to this process over one hundred and eighty-three times. Many prisoners are also beaten. One detainee said “I was punched and slapped in the face and on the back, to the extent that I was bleeding. While having a rope around my neck and being tied to a pillar, my head was banged against the pillar repeatedly” (“CIA Torture Report…”). This is a specific form of torture the CIA uses called “walling.” A detainee is thrown against a flexible wall making a loud noise. The noise is made to make the prisoner believe they have been injured. Threats are often given during interrogations which are usually very degrading. A detainee by the name of Nashiri was told his mother would be sexually abused, and then have her throat cut right in front of him if he failed to cooperate. Nashiri also had a gun pointed at his head and a drill operated near his head while he was blindfolded. The CIA also uses stress points to get information. An unnamed prisoner was shackled to the ceiling by his arms and later tied to the floor with his arms shackled to the ceiling for a total of three months. He said he was forced to urinate and defecate on his own, having to sit in his own excrement (“CIA Torture Report…”). Along with loud music and sounds played on loop twenty-four seven some CIA interrogation rooms also keep the room extremely cold to prevent the detainee from falling asleep (“Facts on Torture”). Finally, the last known forms of torture that the CIA legally uses are nudity and restricted diets. The CIA states keeping new prisoners nude allows for “rewarding detainees instantly with clothing for cooperation.” Restricted diets play a big part in the interrogation process according to the Central Intelligence Agency. The Justice Department forbids prisoners to lose more than ten percent of their total body weight. However, the CIA has found a way around this law that was put in place to keep prisons civil. They simply only serve liquid meals, which creates a food shock for the prisoner while still technically abiding by the law (“CIA Torture Report…”). These are all forms of modern torture that are currently legal in the United States.

America is not the only country that ‘opposes’ torture, the United Nations have made it a point to stand against it. Eighty-three countries have signed The United Nations Convention Against Torture document, including the United States. It requires that all who have signed to “prevent torture in any territory under their jurisdiction and forbids states to transport people to any country where there is reason to believe they will be tortured” (“Convention against Torture”). The United States has made it clear that publically we as a nation denounce all forms of torture. This new document was signed by the United States in 1985 and yet it is clear we have not honored it. We have consciously violated it. America chooses to indulge in torture even though, evidence proves it does not work. It is clear that the United States knows it is wrong because its’ government time and time again signs these documents that say torture is inhumane. So how can America as a nation sign these pieces of legislation knowing full well we are at the same time torturing our prisoners? The contrast is clear.

While the American Constitution clearly shows that torture is wrong, torture also violates the basic right of any living human. Thomas Jefferson identifies the three rights given to every human by God in the Declaration of Independence. They are “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” These are the principles that America was founded on and these are the principles that America should try to honor. America is a great nation with great principles, we just need to uphold them better. America gives billions of dollars to help others facing inequality. America fights wars for those who are treated poorly and given these principles. This is why America needs to stop torture around the world and more importantly stop torture from being done in the United States. The United States needs to prevent any action or practice of inflicting severe pain on someone as a punishment or to force them to do or say, or for the pleasure of the person inflicting the pain. America must uphold the laws in which our country was built, and uphold the documents signed banning torture. The United States must not let its prisoners be subjected to environmental manipulation while under captivity, America must not allow for waterboarding, rectal feeding, confinement in a box, cold water, beatings, threats, stress positions, sleep deprivation, nudity, or restricted diets. Torture is not what our founding fathers believed and torture should not be overlooked or ignored, torture must not continue to be allowed in the United States government.

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Evolution of Views on Tortures in America. (2022, December 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved September 22, 2023, from
“Evolution of Views on Tortures in America.” Edubirdie, 27 Dec. 2022,
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Evolution of Views on Tortures in America [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Dec 27 [cited 2023 Sept 22]. Available from:
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