Looking to the Founders: Would George Washington Approve of Waterboarding?

George Washington cheerfully using a waterboard to “baptize the terrorists.” It almost seems ludicrous invoking such imagery, but there seems to be a real psychological need to tie all of our current events and practices back to the Founding Fathers.

Whether or not United States personnel should use torture against foreign terrorists and insurgents is a question that has sharply divided American opinion — with a makeup that is not exactly following the predictable, traditional party lines.

Even with the division, a growing number of people believe torture is acceptable under certain circumstances. According to a recent HuffPost/YouGov poll, 68 percent of respondents said the government is justified in using torture in some cases, though responses ranged from rarely justified to always justified.

In April 2014, Sarah Palin received cheers at a NRA rally for her statement that waterboarding was how “we’d baptize the terrorists” under her administration. Is this how we really want to portray American foreign policy?

Times are different…

This seems to be the common rationale for why public opinion shifts on torture. We have very graphic pictures of ISIS beheading an American citizen, something that is likely to unite public sentiment against ISIS. Yet, Americans have always been a bit fickle when it comes to how they react to media reports.

Images often have a major impact on public opinion. Just look at the images of our country at war during the past century.

The photo of the U.S.S. Arizona burning did as much to unify public opinion against the Axis powers as any of President Roosevelt’s speeches. In Vietnam, Eddie Adams’ famous picture during the Tet Offensive, “General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong prisoner in Saigon,” became an icon of a significant shift in public opinion against the war.

Americans have a long history of being touched by images that stir our humanity, even when it involves our enemies in combat.

The pictures of torture from the Abu Ghraib prison tilted American opinion against the use of torture. However, war weariness and the brutality displayed by ISIS involving beheadings, ethnic cleansing, and female genital mutilation have all sharply changed opinion back in favor of using torture under certain circumstances.

Humanity is What We Really Don’t Want to Lose

During the Revolutionary War, the standard punishment for treason against the British crown was to be hanged, taken down while still alive, and then drawn and quartered in a gruesome public display — all taking place after hours/days of torture.

George Washington ordered the troops of the Continental Army to not torture captured British soldiers, knowing full well that his own troops would not be treated with similar decency. Instead, Washington demanded that the “new country in the New World would distinguish itself by its humanity.”

How we act in times of crisis is what defines us as a nation. When we choose to militarize the police, suspend civil liberties, or turn a blind eye to our spy network, we only create problems that will haunt us in peace time as well. I think it’s time to distinguish ourselves by our humanity — not for our enemies’ sake, but for our own.