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Thanksgiving Torture


Torture and Thanksgiving are not usually part of the same conversation, but this year the Vice President of the United States’ opposition to an anti-torture statute has put torture on the table right next to the turkey. The resemblance of one turkey to the other is striking, but not because our Puritan forebears approved of both torture and giving thanks to God. Indeed, Puritanism is one important reason why torture is not the legal policy of the United States government.

Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, Puritans in England were disfavored by monarchs and some were hanged for their beliefs (as were some Catholics). Imprisonment and fines were far more common than death, but torture was sanctioned officially and could accompany imprisonment. If a Puritan coupled criticism of the monarch’s tax policy with Puritan religious beliefs, he was likely to have a nostril slit, or an ear lopped off.

While many Puritans sailed for America to find liberty, most Puritans stayed in England and fought a bloody civil war for religious and political liberty in opposition to the divine right of kings. The discord in England that led to civil war was mirrored, on a much smaller scale, in the American colonies. There were many struggles between royal governors and colonists allied with the kings of England on one side, and those seeking religious, political, and commercial freedom on the other side. Puritans who sought their own religious liberty from the Church of England generally did not provide the same religious liberty to those they governed in England and America.

The tumultuous 17th Century ended with the bloodless replacement of the Stuart monarchy by William and Mary, who agreed to the English Bill of Rights, including the prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment.” The English Bill of Rights was the beginning of the end of torture in England.

Remarkably, colonial officials rarely tortured citizens during the 17th and 18th centuries. The only torture commonly sanctioned by governments in America was to permit, under colonial and state laws, cruel and unusual punishment of African slaves (non-citizens) by their owners. Opposition to torture conducted by the government of the United States is reflected in the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.

Until now, our law concerning torture had not changed in more than 200 years; not even during our Civil War, when rebellious armies were sometimes within thirty miles of the capitol, was torture made lawful. But opposition by the Vice President to a ban on torture means we now can conclude that the denials of the use of torture are admissions of support for torture from a Commander-in-Chief who claims authority to make law with respect to non-citizens in custody of the armed forces.

There is no circumstance that excuses the official, governmental sanction of the use of torture because it degrades humans and does not stop outlawed behavior. Puritans were not stopped by official torture; instead Puritans, and many non-Puritans, disdained torture and created a nation “conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Why give thanks at this time of year? Give thanks for liberty that was not purchased with torture.

BOB SHIRLEY lives in Olympia, Washington, and was recently elected to the school board. He can be reached at:



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