The French military tortured systematically from the beginning to the end of the war, most spectacularly during the “Battle of Algiers” in 1957. They used all the classic methods: electricity, simulated drowning, beatings, sexual torture and rape. …The FLN’s use of terrorism—in particular their targeting of European civilians at popular clubs, bars, and so on in urban bombing campaigns—served as the rationale for this “exhaustive interrogation” of “suspects.” … The Algerian War was a war of independence, a war of decolonization. In that sense, it cannot and should not be understood as analogous to, or a direct precursor to, the United States’ “war on terror.”
As an American today, what I find really significant about the use of torture in the Algerian War is what it did to France, which underwent a profound crisis of democracy as it attempted to hold on to Algeria. … what torture did do was poison the public sphere: to conceal the fact that the military was torturing, French governments turned to censorship, seizure of publications deemed deleterious to the honor and reputation of the Army, paralyzing control over the movements of journalists, and prosecution of those who nevertheless continued to publish evidence that torture was going on. … The reason all the government censorship was necessary was that a small but incredibly passionate, intellectually high-powered anti-torture movement developed in France from late 1956. … historical comparison can function as illuminating intellectual practice. … cell phone cameras really changed the world. Because the main reason the French torture-defenders didn’t argue that stuff like simulated drowning was no big deal was because they didn’t have to: they didn’t have to admit simulated drowning was happening AT ALL. In the absence of certain forms of highly-circulated, red-handed visual evidence, like the Abu Ghraib photos in Bush-era America, “deny, deny, deny” (even if massive, overwhelming proof actually does exist) remains a plausible public-relations strategy. … Denial that these things happened at all, which will always be the first line of defense, is no longer possible. And that is encouraging, despite everything.