The torture memos released by the White House elicited shock, indignation and surprise. The shock and indignation are understandable. The surprise, less so.
For one thing, even without inquiry, it was reasonable to suppose that Guantánamo was a torture chamber. Why else send prisoners where they would be beyond the reach of the law--a place, incidentally, that Washington is using in violation of a treaty forced on Cuba at the point of a gun? Security reasons were, of course, alleged, but they remain hard to take seriously. The same expectations held for the Bush administration's "black sites," or secret prisons, and for extraordinary rendition, and they were fulfilled.
More importantly, torture has been routinely practiced from the early days of the conquest of the national territory, and continued to be used as the imperial ventures of the "infant empire"--as George Washington called the new republic--extended to the Philippines, Haiti and elsewhere. Keep in mind as well that torture was the least of the many crimes of aggression, terror, subversion and economic strangulation that have darkened US history, much as in the case of other great powers.
There is still much debate about whether torture has been effective in eliciting information--the assumption being, apparently, that if it is effective, then it may be justified. By the same argument, when Nicaragua captured US pilot Eugene Hasenfuss in 1986, after shooting down his plane delivering aid to US-supported Contra forces, they should not have tried him, found him guilty and then sent him back to the US, as they did. Instead, they should have applied the CIA torture paradigm to try to extract information about other terrorist atrocities being planned and implemented in Washington, no small matter for a tiny, impoverished country under terrorist attack by the global superpower.
By the same standards, if the Nicaraguans had been able to capture the chief terrorism coordinator, John Negroponte, then US ambassador in Honduras (later appointed as the first Director of National Intelligence, essentially counterterrorism czar, without eliciting a murmur), they should have done the same. Cuba would have been justified in acting similarly, had the Castro government been able to lay hands on the Kennedy brothers. There is no need to bring up what their victims should have done to Henry Kissinger, Ronald Reagan and other leading terrorist commanders, whose exploits leave Al Qaeda in the dust, and who doubtless had ample information that could have prevented further "ticking bomb" attacks.
Such considerations never seem to arise in public discussion
The inspirational phrase "city on a hill" was coined by John Winthrop in 1630, borrowing from the Gospels, and outlining the glorious future of a new nation "ordained by God." One year earlier his Massachusetts Bay Colony created its Great Seal. It depicted an Indian with a scroll coming out of his mouth. On that scroll are the words "Come over and help us." The British colonists were thus pictured as benevolent humanists, responding to the pleas of the miserable natives to be rescued from their bitter pagan fate.
The Great Seal is, in fact, a graphic representation of "the idea of America," from its birth. It should be exhumed from the depths of the psyche and displayed on the walls of every classroom. It should certainly appear in the background of all of the Kim Il-Sung-style worship of that savage murderer and torturer Ronald Reagan, who blissfully described himself as the leader of a "shining city on the hill," while orchestrating some of the more ghastly crimes of his years in office, notoriously in Central America but elsewhere as well.
The Great Seal was an early proclamation of "humanitarian intervention," to use the currently fashionable phrase. As has commonly been the case since, the "humanitarian intervention" led to a catastrophe for the alleged beneficiaries. The first Secretary of War, General Henry Knox, described "the utter extirpation of all the Indians in most populous parts of the Union" by means "more destructive to the Indian natives than the conduct of the conquerors of Mexico and Peru."