College of LAS « Illinois


Security’s Price Tag

LAS historians say crisis often leads to clamping down on personal freedoms—or bending the rules.

The use of torture tactics by the United States against terrorism suspects after the September 11 attacks follows a theme found throughout the 20th century in times of crisis, according to LAS historians.

When faced with a perceived threat, authorities tend to curtail civil liberties in the name of added security, says Mark Leff, associate professor of history in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, who teaches a class called “Crises of Political Tolerance.” There was the “red scare” after World War I, the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, the anti-communist investigations during McCarthyism, and others.

“There’s a pattern to overreact during these periods,” Leff says. “And then we say, ‘Oh, how could we have done these terrible things in the past?’ Then we find ourselves doing a lot of fairly similar things again. We have this rather dangerous way of seeing things as a justified tradeoff.”

The pattern extends beyond prominent historical examples. LAS graduate student in history Julilly Kohler-Hausmann contributed to an essay compilation by detailing the actions of Jon Burge, a Chicago policeman from 1970 to the early 1990s, who for years beat and tortured suspects in his station on the city’s south side.

Kohler-Hausmann writes that Burge’s actions were part of an effort to maintain control over largely African American neighborhoods.

“While the police hid their practices from the press and mainstream society, they encouraged their victims to share their experience within their neighborhoods,” Kohler-Hausmann writes. “These acts were not directed against specific criminals but were intended to transmit a message to entire communities about state authority—private torture was therefore explicitly public; the bodies of beaten suspects functioned as warnings of the violence these Chicago police would use in their struggles to control neighborhoods.”

Historically, Leff adds, the “ticking bomb” scenarios where torture is necessary to get a terrorist to talk about an active, ongoing plot are extremely rare, and only cloud the debate, he believes.

“Actually the kind of tradeoffs you make [when you impinge civil liberties] are often not between security and liberty,” Leff says. “They maybe should be between security and money, for example. How much are we going to devote to protecting our ports? We don’t hear much of those kinds of tradeoffs. There are lots of things that can be traded off for security.”

Back to: The Problem with Torture

By Dave Evensen
Spring 2009