Memo to Dick Cheney: George Washington Ordered Execution As Penalty for Torturing Prisoners

Washington: 'Should [punishment for torture] extend to death itself, it will not be disproportional to its guilt '
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During a recent interview, former Vice Pres. Dick Cheney proudly assumed responsibility for the U.S. government’s program of torturing prisoners in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. “I’d do it again in a minute,” Cheney asserted.

Cheney is undoubtedly emboldened by the fact that there is no chance that he, the president he served or their minions will ever face justice for ordering the torture of prisoners, actions that were, by even the lowest standards of decency, war crimes.

Cheney and the others will escape justice, largely because the current president chooses to allow it, despite the fact that torture is illegal in this country and worldwide, under provisions of an anti-torture treaty signed by Pres. Ronald Reagan in 1984. There is also precedent for trying officials accused of torture. As was noted earlier, in 1946, the United States and its allies executed Japanese officials who ordered waterboarding of prisoners during World War II.

But the roots of America’s abhorrence to torture go back even farther, all the way to the founding. In fact, during the Revolutionary War, George Washington ordered that soldiers under his command who were found to have tortured prisoners could face execution.

“Should any American soldier be so base and infamous as to injure any [prisoner],” Washington wrote in his orders to Gen. Benedict Arnold in September 1775, “I do most earnestly enjoin you to bring him to such severe and exemplary punishment as the enormity of the crime may require. Should it extend to death itself, it will not be disproportional to its guilt at such a time and in such a cause… for by such conduct they bring shame, disgrace and ruin to themselves and their country.”

This aversion to torture was baked into the American conscience at its origins, and it remained the national consensus until great swathes of the American public succumbed to the climate of fear that prevailed in the aftermath of 9/11. The fact is, if Cheney, Bush and their neocon cabal had tortured prisoners at any time in American history before September 2001, they would have been tried, sentenced, imprisoned and possibly even executed well before a dozen years had passed.

Here’s the full text of Washington’s letter to Gen. Arnold:

Camp at Cambridge, September 14, 1775.
Sir: You are intrusted with a Command of the utmost Consequence sequence to the Interest and Liberties of America. Upon your Conduct and Courage and that of the Officers and Soldiers detached on this Expedition, not only the Success of the present Enterprize, and your own Honour, but the Safety and Welfare of the Whole Continent may depend. I charge you, therefore, and the Officers and Soldiers, under your Command, as you value your own Safety and Honour and the Favour and Esteem of your Country, that you consider yourselves, as marching, not through an Enemy’s Country; but that of our Friends and Brethren, for such the Inhabitants of Canada, and the Indian Nations have approved themselves in this unhappy Contest between Great Britain and America. That you check by every Motive of Duty and Fear of Punishment, every Attempt to plunder or insult any of the Inhabitants of Canada. Should any American Soldier be so base and infamous as to injure any Canadian or Indian, in his Person or Property, I do most earnestly enjoin you to bring him to such severe and exemplary Punishment as the Enormity of the Crime may require.

Should it extend to Death itself it will not be disproportional to its Guilt at such a Time and in such a Cause: But I hope and trust, that the brave Men who have voluntarily engaged in this Expedition, will be governed by far different Views. that Order, Discipline and Regularity of Behaviour will be as conspicuous, as their Courage and Valour. I also give it in Charge to you to avoid all Disrespect to or Contempt of the Religion of the Country and its Ceremonies. Prudence, Policy, and a true Christian Spirit, will lead us to look with Compassion upon their Errors without insulting them. While we are contending for our own Liberty, we should be very cautious of violating the Rights of Conscience in others, ever considering that God alone is the Judge of the Hearts of Men, and to him only in this Case, they are answerable. Upon the whole, Sir, I beg you to inculcate upon the Officers and Soldiers, the Necessity of preserving the strictest Order during their March through Canada; to represent to them the Shame, Disgrace and Ruin to themselves and Country, if they should by their Conduct, turn the Hearts of our Brethren in Canada against us. And on the other Hand, the Honours and Rewards which await them, if by their Prudence and good Behaviour, they conciliate the Affections of the Canadians and Indians, to the great Interests of America, and convert those favorable Dispositions they have shewn into a lasting Union and Affection. Thus wishing you and the Officers and Soldiers under your Command, all Honour, Safety and Success, I remain Sir, etc.

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