The grisly subject of torture is back with us again, with fresh allegations of misconduct. It is a subject which first came to occupy my thoughts when I was writing a book on the Algerian War, A Savage War of Peace, back in the 1970s. It has never left me. In the course of my researches in France, one of the men I came most to respect, Paul Teitgen, former French prefect of Algiers, remarked to me:
All our so-called civilisation is covered with a varnish. Scratch it, and underneath you find fear. The French ... are not torturers by nature. But when you see the throats of your copains [buddies] slit, then the varnish disappears. Teitgen was a thoroughly honorable man, and he has surely been proved a wise one since 9/11.
At the height of the French-Algerian War, good American liberals were appalled and disgusted by revelations of torture by the French army. The pack was led by then-Senator John E Kennedy, who called for every kind of sanction against France. In the event, possibly as much as any other single factor, it was the reaction against la torture, across the world and within Metropolitan France itself, that won the war for the Algerians--though, when it came to atrocities, their hands were by no means spotless. Yet, when 9/11 struck, out of horror at what had been perpetrated, many of those good Americans who had so vigorously opposed torture as practiced by the French in Algeria stifled their qualms and at best averted their gazes from excesses committed in Guantanamo, water-boarding within the homeland or rendition abroad for other less squeamish regimes to do what was necessary. Or they more actively supported the Rumsfeld-Cheney line for the extraction of information at any cost.
The same phenomena were witnessed in my country after the murderous bombings in London of July 2005, as fear raised its head. One almost-immediate response was the shooting on the London Tube of an utterly innocent Brazilian by trigger-happy and frightened cops. A close relative of mine in England, a man whom I respect for his liberal-mindedness, now expresses himself in favor of interrogation under torture--given certain circumstances: i.e., when the authorities are convinced that it might avert a terrible atrocity. We argue vigorously. Can one trust even the finest brains in the CIA or MI-5 ever to be absolutely sure about a culprit?
I was lecturing in Camden, South Carolina, when the news of Abu Ghraib first broke. Nobody around me seemed to pay much attention. But I was appalled. It was not just my naive belief, since childhood days in the U.S. of A., that Americans simply did not do this kind of thing, but a much more chilling warning of the consequences-notably in terms of the adverse propaganda presented to the cause of Islamic fundamentalism. Now, in retrospect, I shudder to think how many lives of allied soldiers, of hostages, this one act of abuse may have caused. It was a grotesque abuse that wasn't even torture, but done purely for personal gratification, for kicks; in a way, that made it worse, because it didn't even have the purpose of gaining intelligence. But the insult to Islam, fanned by organs like Al Jazeera, was immense--and immediate, as I feared it would be. It was like handing al-Qaeda, free and gratis, a new and lethal secret weapon. Given the speed of modern communications, it was a weapon that would flash across the breadth of the Muslim world with the speed of light. Muslims would know that the West was fighting a dirty war--and respond accordingly.
The Battle of Algiers
By the beginning of 1957, France's war against the Algerian rebels was entering its third year. With some half-a-million men deployed in the country, the French army was not doing well. The war had moved from the countryside, the bled, to the city of Algiers. It was a challenge (brilliantly portrayed in that classic movie, The Battle of Algiers) that was likely to prove decisive in the conflict, to whomever emerged in the ascendant. In command of the French forces in Algiers, the elite 10th Division, was a tough para (paratrooper) general, Jacques Massu, who had led troops in the 1944 liberation of Paris and seen France defeated thrice--in 1940 by the Nazis, then in Indochina and finally humiliated during the abortive Suez operation of 1956. Massu and his paras were determined that Algeria would be the end of the line of French defeats. A totally up-front...