Torture in the Algerian War

by Henry on June 20, 2009

Via Arthur Goldhammer, this is a very interesting post.

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.

{ 55 comments }

1

Jeremy A 06.21.09 at 12:36 am

Get the 3-disc edition of the film “The Battle of Algiers” and see the documentaries on disc 3, “The Film and History.” One, “Etats d’Armes,” contains interviews with the torturers themselves. There you’ll find one of the best renditions of the “ticking bomb” argument ever–the earnest French former officer explaining that if you have to choose between leaving the captured bomb-maker alone vs. saving dozens of innocent victims, “You do what you have to do.”

Then, moments later, there’s the guy who witnessed the reality of the French torture program and was willing to describe it honestly, rather than self-servingly. Like Bush’s, the French program was not about choosing, in a moment of moral agony, to torture the occasional bomb maker in order to save innocents from imminent death. Rather, they rounded up tens of thousands of people in hopes of catching someone, or someone who knew something. Of those, many thousands were tortured just to squeeze them for any information they might have. Thousands were murdered, their bodies dumped in rivers or the sea. Another former officer all but admits to murdering an insurgent leader in his prison cell.

Given how things have gone since we found out about Abu Ghraib, I’m not yet sure that the lack of secrecy has made for much of an improvement. We haven’t had a prompt, honest, and thorough investigation and prosecutions of those responsible. We had some scapegoating. We had denials and evasions. To this day we have folks arguing with a straight face that there was no torture (or ‘torture’), or that it was legal, moral, necessary, and so on. Rather than helping to cleanse our practices, the process on the whole has gone a long way towards corrupting our judgment.

Perhaps this is partly because Bush’s abuses, like those of the French, were not really such aberrations. Torture is a perennial practice. (A nice illustration, if you’ll pardon the pun, is here: http://tinyurl.com/mcdu76 .) Bush’s main innovation was not to torture but to do it so much and so openly. And in post-9/11 America, there’s no limit to the evils one may visit on a person branded a “terrorist.”

So I’ll wait until at least one of the higher-ups responsible is in the dock before I share the sense of encouragement.

2

McDuff 06.21.09 at 2:11 am

Perhaps it’s my cynicism, but I’m looking at recent events and wondering if perhaps the French were so obsessed with denying it happened that they missed the more obvious route — tell everyone about it, say it only happened to bad people, and ignore what little faux-democratic fallout a bored populace can muster.

3

LFC 06.21.09 at 2:24 am

Thank you for bringing the post (and the blogger) to CT readers’ attention.

4

Henri Vieuxtemps 06.21.09 at 8:47 am

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.”

Perhaps the blogger could drop by and elaborate on this one a little.

5

Gareth Rees 06.21.09 at 11:20 am

In his history of the Algerian War, A Savage War of Peace, Alastair Horne points out that one of the effects of the French policy of torture was to radicalize the remaining moderate Algerians. Early in the conflict, there were Algerians prepared to compromise with France, the so-called interlocuteurs valables, but after the Battle of Algiers there was only the FLN.

6

bert 06.21.09 at 3:37 pm

After “The Battle of Algiers”, people might have a look at Michael Haneke’s “Caché”.
The Daniel Auteuil character presents a front to the world. Beneath it lies complicity, cowardice and bad conscience.
Haneke’s inspiration: in 1961, a militarized police force carried out a massacre in the middle of Paris. The article at this link shows how the press – including the international press – played an enabling role.

… eyewitness reports recounted stranglings by police and the drowning of Algerians in the Seine, from which bodies would be recovered downstream for weeks to come … The newsman who saw the piles of Algerian corpses was not allowed to report the story; his bosses ordered that the bureau reports stick to the official figures. Both French and foreign journalists in Paris seemed tacitly to agree that nothing should be done to further destabilize the French government or endanger de Gaulle

There are other parallels with the US, but that one seems worth highlighting, since an excessively respectful media establishment remains among the best assets of the torture defenders. It suggests, among other things, that the mere existence of the Abu Ghraib photos is not enough to ensure a reckoning. Assuming Daniel Auteuil can cope with the discomfort of a bad conscience, he gets to keep all his bourgeois comforts.

7

bert 06.21.09 at 6:48 pm

To be more explicit, the post Henry’s quoting from talks about shutting down Paris newspapers that print the word “torture”. But the New York Times famously censors itself in that regard, sparing the government the trouble. The fate of Dan Froomkin (“I call it torture. Over and over again.”) has shown those still employed by the Post what is expected of them.
It is obviously preferable to have a Jane Mayer or a Taxi to the Dark Side able to release their material without harassment. But given the context of a successor administration that wants to “look forward”, and an electorate whose focus groups consistently deliver the same message, is it really possible to conclude that “the free press in America, thanks in large part to the web, is still functioning”? On the rare occasions when torture becomes a front-burner issue it is reported as a controversy, with bullshit equivalence given to two evenly matched sets of talking points. Can we really be confident that the future will judge one society – one where the truth was suppressed and justice was never done – more harshly than another society where the truth was openly available, and justice was never done?

8

novakant 06.21.09 at 7:45 pm

“Cache” is one of those films that I instantly hated from the bottom of my heart for being incredibly pretentious while having the substance of a mediocre high-school essay, just like e.g. “The Dark Knight” and “Vanilla Sky”. It’s nothing personal, Bert, some of my best friends loved it.

9

oudemia 06.21.09 at 8:08 pm

Godard’s 1960 Le petit soldat, has a lengthy torture sequence (waterboarding and electricity, for the most part), which is why it was banned in France until 63 or 64. (Claire Denis’s Beau travail is a “sequel” of sorts, with Michel Subor reprising his Bruno character several decades later.)

10

Tim Wilkinson 06.21.09 at 8:51 pm

Politically and physically dying Cheney had a last deranged throw of the dice in trying to ratchet up authoritarian executive power. He seems to have succeeded in many ways, and insofar as publicity about torture might ever be regarded as problematic rather than a successful exercise in normalising the practice and establishing opposition to be limited, retreat back into secrecy is an open option. It seems pretty win-win for the evil bastards to me.

Return to effective (it need not be hermetic) secrecy would be especially easy if – as now seems unlikely fr a while – Dershowitz’s wretched ‘torture warrants’ scheme (which in some ways follows the same lines as pragmatically concessive arguments for ganja legalisation – except the uncontrollable masses are part of the secret state) ever became reality – no need to hide (most of) the facilities, the personnel or (part of) the training.

11

bert 06.21.09 at 9:17 pm

Fair enough you didn’t like it, Novakant, but it comes from a different planet to the other two you mention. The Dark Night was a comic superhero sequel. The term of art you’re encouraged to use these days for a series of films like that is “franchise”, which basically tells you all you need to know. As for Vanilla Sky, the original Spanish movie with its it-was-all-a-dream ending was spectacularly stupid. The American remake was equally stupid, and was also a star vehicle/vanity project.
Haneke isn’t perfect, and some of his stuff ticks people off. But I think “Caché” dealt with some pretty explosive material, and did so almost flawlessly. If anyone reading this hasn’t seen it, I’d recommend giving it a go. See what you think.

12

Henri Vieuxtemps 06.21.09 at 9:52 pm

I think that the possibility of normalization is a function of successful dehumanization of the enemy. Dehumanization exercise actually worked quite well in this case; they have managed to market the opponent as evil “Al-Qaeda”, and give it a recognizable face – bin Laden’s. Bin Laden has become Emmanuel Goldstein reincarnated, and it worked; for a while one could easily imagine a real-life 2-minute-hate official daily ritual. Once this model (Good vs Evil) had been generally accepted, normalization of torture was the most natural outcome.

To argue effectively against torture one would have to emphasize the humanity of the opponents, examine their point of view, legitimacy of their grievances. Otherwise people will just shrug – if the enemy is not human, why not torture? And that makes sense, you know.

13

sg 06.21.09 at 10:19 pm

I saw a documentary on the massacre in Paris to which Bert refers. Very nasty business that, and when I was in Paris this year I was reminded of it by the uniformed thugs randomly harrassing arabs in the train stations. There’s some trouble there…

14

Tim Wilkinson 06.21.09 at 10:48 pm

HV @12 I think that the possibility of normalization is a function of successful dehumanization of the enemy I think the two can be interrelated and reinforcing in various ways – but to me, causation doesn’t seem inevitable nor clearly lie always in one direction. Not sure that it’s an unequivocally accurate description of the GWOT strategy, either. The emphasis was after all as you say on (extreme and implacable) evil – which is a human characteristic, and indeed had to be to elicit the exaggerated response that ‘security’ and military considerations can – the human enemy gets the blood up in a way that natural forces and even monsters don’t. Goldstein was a cipher but a very recognisably human one (and necessarily so given its role).

I supose the locus classicus for dehumanisation would be the Nazi atrocities. And that strikes me as quite different, because we are mostly talking about the actual hands-on perpetrators. Dehumnaisation was mixed with various other ‘coping’ methods, such as constant drunkenness, of many of those involved in the actual doing of such evil. It’s plausible that the dehumanisation follows the doing of, or requirement to do, awful things to people, so may be a necessary (inevitable) adjunct to it in certain circumstances, but not a prerequisite for getting it started. In any case the doers (rather than mere abstract approvers) in the US case – scapegoats aside – were presumably specially profiled, selected, trained, monitored and generally managed in a way which didn’t require the dubious support of a not-very-convincing dehumanisation. (As well as obviously not having to do anything anywhere near as grim as the Nazi atrocities.)

And Good v Evil has been a constant strand of US propaganda. The Nazis, Caahmmunists, whoever. But torture (unlike, notably, ‘collateral damage’) wasn’t normalised in either the 2nd or Cold wars. Maybe the dehumanisation was less effectively done, or not attempted because there was an actual real enemy in the first case and at least an impressive adversary in the second? Or maybe at least among ‘whites’, there is a racial factor at work. But anyway FWIW I’m not convinced that dehumanisation was either that effective nor determinative of torture approval. What were the baddies like in 24? That appears to have been a major culprit. (I wonder if Keifer Sutherland would have been up for a ‘this intransigent bomber can only be influenced by seeing his children raped’ episode…)

To argue effectively against torture one would have to emphasize the humanity of the opponents, examine their point of view, legitimacy of their grievances It would be nice if you could do the first one without having to rely on the others.

15

Z 06.22.09 at 1:52 am

Denial that these things happened at all, which will always be the first line of defense, is no longer possible.

This is a plus, granted. However, the second-best strategy-deny as long as you can then blame it on a few bad apples-seems to be alive and kicking. Not to mention the “nothing worse that a frat night” line of defense.

Torture in the Algerian war remains an excruciating painful episode of French history, as I think will become the torture/rendition complex of the Bush administration for US history.

16

Map Maker 06.22.09 at 3:45 am

“Otherwise people will just shrug – if the enemy is not human, why not torture?”

I take the other extreme – moral relativism et al. Torture was alive and well in World War II by all parties, Korean War, Vietnam, cold war, you name. Iraq was only different because there was a group of elites with media access opposed to the war, plus photos. Granted because of US historical appeal as “beacon of hope, light” and other such proganda it isn’t possible to the US to do less than deny, deny, deny. China denies torture in their prisons (absent a few specific “rouge” elements) so does Iran, France, US, and UK. Torture occurs in all of these countries and unless you can convince me that torture is more common, frequent or severe in western democracies than other forms of government, I’ll just shrug and say if everyone does it, it must be part of human nature. Faut de tout pour faire un monde.

17

novakant 06.22.09 at 9:34 am

Fair enough you didn’t like it, Novakant, but it comes from a different planet to the other two you mention.

I won’t argue, since it seems to be one of those love it or leave it things, but I think they are quite similar as far as pretentiousness is concerned and that art-house isn’t superior to genre cinema (I’ll watch anything if it’s good). But I’ll check out Funny Games, which seems to be very interesting.

18

magistra 06.22.09 at 9:51 am

I’ll just shrug and say if everyone does it, it must be part of human nature

I’d say there is a moral difference between the secret carrying out of torture and its brazen use: the secret use admits that it’s still shameful behaviour, even if frequent. Open use implies that torture is no longer morally shameful.

One aspect in public acceptance is that it’s easier to torture ‘the other’: medieval Christians torturing Jews (while being appalled at supposed Jewish torture of Christians), the British government being prepared to torture Africans (in Kenya) and Irish (in Northern Ireland), lynching in the US, etc.

But I don’t think that alone explains the US acceptance of torture. I think it’s more to do with a specifically US cultural view of criminals. Americans are overall more willing than other Westerners to accept that it’s OK to do extreme things to bad people, and more willing to presume that those accused must be guilty. I think that’s the only way you can explain the US attachment to the death penalty, very high imprisonment rates and lack of concern for the welfare of prisoners. I’d see acceptance of torture as being easier to sell to the American public because of the background of general indifference about brutality to prisoners, more than because of any greater tendency to dehumanization in US culture.

19

bert 06.22.09 at 10:55 am

#16 -
It looks nice and warm in your mudbath, I’m sure the last thing you’d want is someone primly quoting Bonhoeffer at you. Let’s take it as read that wars, like other human enterprises, are built out of crooked timber.
So I’ll just invite you to see the connection between the torture program, Guantanamo, the circumvention of FISA, the wartime assertion of executive powers, the politicised firings of public prosecutors and many other familiar elements of the Bush administration’s approach to government. The common thread is mistrust of and frustration with the rule of law.
This is what creates the contrast between Robert Jackson’s speeches to the Nuremberg court and the repeated collapse of attempted proceedings in the military tribunals. It’s not a contrast that flatters your comfortable cynicism.
But maybe, like Daniel Auteuil, you can concentrate on other things. Humping Juliette Binoche can’t be too terrible.

20

Witt 06.22.09 at 3:06 pm

Americans are overall more willing than other Westerners to accept that it’s OK to do extreme things to bad people, and more willing to presume that those accused must be guilty. I think that’s the only way you can explain the US attachment to the death penalty, very high imprisonment rates and lack of concern for the welfare of prisoners.

The description rings true, but as to the cause…historical experience says racism.

21

Stuart 06.22.09 at 5:22 pm

But I don’t think that alone explains the US acceptance of torture. I think it’s more to do with a specifically US cultural view of criminals. Americans are overall more willing than other Westerners to accept that it’s OK to do extreme things to bad people, and more willing to presume that those accused must be guilty.

One of the more extreme examples being this sort of thing.

22

bert 06.22.09 at 7:56 pm

The whole premise of this thread is that there are points of comparison between American and European experience.
It’s been well documented that in late 50′s – early 60′s France the armed forces and the police were extremely right wing, and routinely gave harsh treatment to North Africans who crossed their path. Bombings and assassinations targeting police and army personnel in Algeria and metropolitan France only intensified the problem, and made it dangerously combustible. Politically, Poujadism was strong, with the young Le Pen one of its elected deputies.
So, to draw our comparison we need to imagine the reaction, in this context, to the revelation of torture. There would have been some shocked outrage, I’m sure. But also plenty of special pleading on the torturers’ behalf. Anyone arguing that French reaction would have been infinitely nobler than what we saw from Americans is looking at evidence I haven’t seen. So before the thread degenerates into euroweenie willy-wagging, I should say clearly that I don’t think this is true: “Americans are overall more willing than other Westerners to accept that it’s OK to do extreme things to bad people”.

America’s problem was that one of its dominant political parties dedicated itself to the proposition that it’s OK to do extreme things to bad people. And a gutless establishment within the political system and more broadly within the cultural mainstream was too cowed by populism to stand up for principle.

23

magistra 06.22.09 at 8:41 pm

America’s problem was that one of its dominant political parties dedicated itself to the proposition that it’s OK to do extreme things to bad people.

But then the question is, why did they do that? And unless you want to conclude that the higher ranks of the Republican party consists of people who are naturally sadistic, then the obvious reason that they became dedicated to pro-torture policies is because they thought it would be a popular position with voters (and for several years, they were correct). Given how willing European political parties have been to embrace lots of other populist positions, why haven’t they come out as pro-torture, unless they think that their population doesn’t want it? Believe me, if Tony Blair had thought that the British people secretly wanted people tortured, he would have been giving pro-torture speeches promptly.

24

engels 06.22.09 at 8:57 pm

I should say clearly that I don’t think this is true: “Americans are overall more willing than other Westerners to accept that it’s OK to do extreme things to bad people”.

Rather than just saying so clearly it might be interesting if you were to attempt to present some sort of argument.

25

Chris 06.22.09 at 8:58 pm

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.”

I don’t see how this is a difference. The U.S. is targeted in the “war on terror” primarily because of its military support for Israel, which is very much a colonial power. (Israel is also, of course, targeted in its own right.)

The main difference, IMO, is that because the Israeli colonists didn’t come from any one country, they don’t have any one country to go back to; unlike India and other successful decolonizations, the colonists can’t go home because they *are* home, psychologically. That’s what makes the conflict more intractable than ordinary colonialist situations where the home country can (and often does) eventually give it up as not worth the trouble.

26

Henri Vieuxtemps 06.22.09 at 9:37 pm

The pieds-noirs also felt at home psychologically. Decolonization is not about colonizers leaving, it’s about equal right for the natives and independence. The fact that many people of European descent do leave is not the point of decolonization, but merely a consequence of it: they can’t accept the loss of status and privilege.

27

bert 06.22.09 at 9:47 pm

Magistra@23:
The thing is, despite all his offputting bluster, Bush didn’t give that populist pro-torture speech you’re imagining. That’s Cheney, and it’s recent. Bush by contrast was always pure bullshit on the subject. Almost Blairlike, you might say: “These procedures were designed to be safe, to comply with our laws, our Constitution, and our treaty obligations. The Department of Justice reviewed the authorized methods extensively and determined them to be lawful … The United States does not torture. It’s against our laws, and it’s against our values. I have not authorized it—and I will not authorize it.”
And not until September 2006 was he required to say even this.

You ask an interesting question about where the causal root for the torture policy lies. Seems to me there’s a deeper analytical question there about the nature of power, and if I can’t make a political theory point here, where can I? Your view seems to coincide with a kind of Robert Dahl pluralism. I prefer a Steven Lukes kind of radicalism – meaning that you should be able to look at opinion formation from the top down. Bush set the tone for America’s reaction to 9/11. He went the populist route. He mongered fear, and war. Which is why I hate the little fucker like poison.

Engels@24: I know from previous threads that you’re a regular, and make serious contributions. But I have to assume that you only skimmed this thread. I’ll happily respond if you decide you have something more.

28

Clarity 06.22.09 at 10:13 pm

Bert, I recently viewed Haneke’s “Caché” and had to have the metaphor spelt out for me. I appreciate the voracity of it now and wish more Filmmakers would do the same. I am a Director myself and admit that I do not have the wisdom to tackle such a subject yet on film.

With regards to this post, I read an enlightening article recently that revealed how the current administration refuse to pull out any roots left growing from the previous occupier, pardon me, administration. The shocking truth is that there is a complacency with regards to a foreigner, better a yet a “baaad” foreigner in pain. Call it racism, call it fear, like Daniel’s character it is the mark and march of cowardice. Be it the tortured or the starving dusky-hued minions so many turn away from without a second thought. I think this cycle can only be broken when more people have the guts to confront their media “outlets” to print a hint of the truth rather than expedient sensationalism.

By the way, Bert, that article link is broken, please post another.

29

bert 06.22.09 at 10:53 pm

Fuck me, Clarity, you’re right. The Post have only gone and removed it. Nothing in Google cache, nothing in Wayback Machine. Best I can find is Greenwald, who clipped just the relevant snippet: http://www.salon.com/opinion/greenwald/2009/06/19/washpost/index.html

30

engels 06.22.09 at 10:54 pm

Bert – So what is your reason for denying that there is anything distinctive in American culture that leads to an unusually unforgiving attitude to perceived evil-doers (by the standards of most other modern Western democracies) ? If you’ve made the case in a previous comment you just point me to it. Or you could just carry on lecturing me about my lack of seriousness. Whatever floats your bloat.

31

engels 06.22.09 at 11:14 pm

(Your Lukesian causal explanation of American popular sentiment regarding the acceptability of torture may or may not be convincing but it does not exclude the possibility of more diffuse cultural pressures.)

32

engels 06.22.09 at 11:20 pm

Interesting poll with international comparisions here.

33

bert 06.22.09 at 11:26 pm

Froomkin’s archive survives, with his torture-tagged posts collected here.

34

engels 06.22.09 at 11:30 pm

Also, if we are comparing the US of 2009 with France of 1959, that is not exactly flattering to the US. In many parts of the world human rights norms have solidified, in law and in general consciousness I think (or would hope), over the last half century.

35

engels 06.23.09 at 12:04 am

(And in case there are still people I haven’t yet offended, a possible Dawkinsian angle on this here.)

36

bert 06.23.09 at 12:15 am

That’s a contemporary poll and it’s a good piece of evidence.
It’s certainly more robust than what I was attempting to do, which was compare post-9/11 America with a counterfactual from 1958 France.
That’s the context I was pointing you towards. And that’s the comparison I think we need to make.
Let’s take another possible comparison – the reaction to the 1974 Birmingham pub bombings. 21 dead, 182 injured. I imagine an international poll taken immediately after would have shown a distinctive pattern in British opinion. And the Birmingham Six had to wait sixteen years for that opinion to change.
I remember a conversation I had a good few years ago, in the nineties some time, when a foreign student had just been to see “In the Name of the Father”, and was letting me know what shits the Brits were. There’s no excusing it, I said, but to understand it you need to think about the bombings, about who got killed, about how they died. “Oh yeah,” he said, “There was a bomb at the beginning of the movie.” That guy was a Yank – a Rhodes Scholar, what’s more.
So my response to you, and to others who want to draw unflattering comparisons between Americans and “other Westerners” is that there’s nothing particularly American about the nasty character of much of the American reaction to 9/11. It’s what you should expect. It’s how groups behave. And it’s why I put so much of my emphasis on the cowardice and complicity of the elite response, because better leadership could have made an enormous difference.

37

bert 06.23.09 at 12:18 am

Ah I didn’t see 11.30 until I’d hit submit on 12:15.
So I may need to come back, let’s see.

38

bert 06.23.09 at 12:37 am

Nope, I think we’re okay.
As far as norms go, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was 1948.
People back then still catching the occasional whiff of freshly-hung Nazi.

39

engels 06.23.09 at 12:51 am

40

engels 06.23.09 at 12:55 am

And no answer to my question, as far as I can see.

41

LFC 06.23.09 at 1:26 am

David L. Schalk’s War and the Ivory Tower: Algeria and Vietnam (1991; reissued 2005), comparing responses of French and American intellectuals to their countries’ respective involvements, may have some (albeit perhaps tangential) relevance to this discussion.

42

bert 06.23.09 at 1:56 am

1948 is way the most important date on that list.
1984 matters too (recently it’s been rhetorically useful – Ronald Reagan signed it!) but it’s a UN Convention. Its impact on general consciousness was insignificant enough for the Bushies to be happy abrogating it (with spurious legal cover of course).

As for your question, it didn’t strike me as serious the first time you put it.
Who’s made the case that there is something about America and Americans – something inherent that applies across historical comparisons – that makes them into morally compromised torturers while we other Westerners remain morally pristine.
There’s been two suggestions in this thread:
1. Americans lock people up more than they should.
2. Americans are racist.
Let’s just say that both suggestions need work.

And that’s it for me tonight. I’ll check back after work tomorrow.

43

bert 06.23.09 at 1:57 am

Thanks for the reference, LFC.

44

Henri Vieuxtemps 06.23.09 at 7:33 am

To defend Bert’s thesis: European (British, at least, but probably everywhere) public opinion does support capital punishment; the elites, apparently, refuse to go along with it. I suppose any elected politician has to be a populist in one area or another. If it’s not economic populism, it has to be the cultural kind. American politicians make a better use of it.

45

Katherine 06.23.09 at 9:31 am

Engels, that timeline you posted at #39 is interesting, but it is a shame it doesn’t include the Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions that were adopted in the mid-70′s (1976 I think). These were extremely significant since they are the start of the process of actually enforcing international covenants. Just a little side note that I thought was relevant.

46

magistra 06.23.09 at 11:33 am

Bert,

I am not suggesting that Europeans are whiter than white in contrast to the US, there’s been horrible brutality by Europeans in the recent past. But if you’re going to deny that there is a difference between the current attitudes towards prison and prisoners in the US and elsewhere in the west, you’re pretty unconvincing. If you think that general US view has no effect on why there was less concern about torturing prisoners, what makes you think that? (FWIW, I don’t think that racism is the key: the US seems to me no more racist overall than the UK and possibly less so, although racist prejudices express themselves in different ways in the two countries).

And if you want to say that it is the WTC attacks that has made the difference in the US and compare it to the supposed effect of the IRA pub bombings, what about the London tube bombings? The poll cited earlier on international views of torture was taken in 2006, just over a year after 52 people had been killed by terrorists. (As for the UK poll on the death penalty, there’s an interesting contrast, with the young being considerably less enthusiatic about the death penalty than those old enough to remember its use).

I don’t deny Bush’s populist approach, but I don’t think it would have succeeded if it hadn’t latched onto some particular US cultural traits. I don’t think such views are as prevalent in Europe at the moment, but although I hope that the British public will never become pro-torture I am not certain of that.

47

Henri Vieuxtemps 06.23.09 at 1:25 pm

Isn’t it true, though, that European politicians in general are less likely to appeal to xenophobia, tribalism, etc., and those who do (like Le Pen, for example – with his more of less standard platform of the conservative Republicans in the US) are confronted by the establishment much more decisively than their US counterparts?

And is it possible that the same phenomenon affects the attitudes towards prison and prisoners: it’s easy to whip up hatred, but the European elites typically refrain from doing it, for some reason. I don’t know, but perhaps it’s because European elites are more stable, less competition there; they can afford to retain some dignity.

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engels 06.23.09 at 6:01 pm

but the European elites typically refrain from doing it, for some reason. I don’t know

You’re right, you don’t know. In fact, most of what you have written is pure speculation (and very vague–what do you mean by your (verbless) assertion ‘less competition there [among the ruling class in Europe]‘???) Btw the poll you link to doesn’t confirm Bert’s view at all. To do that you’d need to show (at least) not just that there is popular support for the death penalty in the UK (/= Europe) but that it is of a similar level in Europe and the US.

Katherine: good point.

Bert: Magistra made a claim that seemed to me (and I’d bet to most people here) intuitively plausible, in the light of well-known, atypical features of the US state (criminal justice, welfare) and political scene. You didn’t just say it was unproven but that you didn’t believe it. Given that, it’s seems quite in order to ask you to give your reasons for rejecting it. But you seem to have resolved not to give them on principle and are determined to try to keep throwing the ball back in the other court, as it were. Fine, whatever. For the record, nobody claimed that Europeans are ‘morally pristine’ or that the features of contemporay American society/culture under discussion are ‘inherent’ or historically immutable — that’s Worzel Gummidge stuff.

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engels 06.23.09 at 6:06 pm

nobody claimed that … that the features of contemporay American society/culture under discussion are … historically immutable

–as one might gather from the link above to the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 06.23.09 at 6:38 pm

…pure speculation…and very vague…

Right, as opposed to the well-established unambiguous fact of “specifically US cultural view of criminals”.

To do that you’d need to show (at least) not just that there is popular support for the death penalty in the UK (/= Europe) but that it is of a similar level in Europe and the US.

No, I don’t think so. My claim is that European elites (unlike parts of the US elite/media) deliberately avoid whipping up a mob mentality. Why that is – you’re right, I can’t explain. But if it is true, naturally popular support for torture and capital punishment should be lower in Europe.

Now, perhaps what I’m saying is roughly an equivalent of “specifically US cultural view”, but I like my formulation better; “specific cultural view” is a bit too enigmatic.

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bert 06.23.09 at 6:50 pm

magistra@46:
That’s a smart point about the 2005 bombings.
It suggests that not every act of terrorism provokes popular bloodlust. When the bombers attacked, Londoners drew on the long experience of the Irish terror campaign, and on folk memories of the Blitz. Keep calm and carry on.
My purpose is not to downplay the American reaction to 9/11. We all remember how nuts some people went. Some have been chewing the carpet ever since.
Nor is it to deny that general cultural traits will have a role in how that reaction expresses itself. But America is vast and contains multitudes. Leadership played a crucial role in steering outcomes towards torture.
When I talk about Lukes, I’m not saying that public opinion doesn’t exist. Rather, I’m saying it’s malleable, and can be channeled. Frank Luntz makes a useful bogeyman here, and it’s kind of pitiful that among the blurb quotes for Words That Work is this from John Kerry: “Frank Luntz understands the power of words to move public opinion and communicate big ideas.” Poor, pathetic sap.
The media also plays a role, from the active malevolence of Fox to the passive enabling of network nightly news.
But the prime culprits are the runts who ran the executive branch. God rot them.

Engels, comment #30 is pure Aunt Sally.
Over the past eight years or so, more than once American friends and acquaintances have told me they’re worried about european anti-americanism. Don’t worry, I say. Almost all of it is anti-Bush. No doubt you’re keen to tell me I’m wrong about that too.

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engels 06.23.09 at 7:19 pm

Aunt Sally? It seems like a pretty fair description of the discussion we have just had, we seems to have gone roughly like this:

Magistra: P
Bert: I don’t believe P.
Me: Why don’t you believe P, Bert?
Bert: I don’t mean any offence, but I am not going to respond to that question seriously until you demonstrate your seriousness by writing something at greater length. And I don’t think you have read the entire thread.
Me: Ummm, okay. Here are some of my general thoughts. So why don’t you believe that P?
Bert: I knew a Rhodes Scholar in the nineties who was very anti-British.
Me: That’s interesting. But why don’t you believe that P?
Bert: I didn’t think it was a serious question. Er, essentialism, ‘we’ are morally pristine, ‘they’ are barbarians.
Me: Ummm, nobody said anything resembling that. So you’re not going to answer my question then. Fine.
Bert: That last comment was pure Aunt Sally.

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bert 06.23.09 at 8:01 pm

If anyone else thinks that’s the thread they’ve read, I’ll do my best to respond.
If it’s just Engels, forgive me but I won’t bother.

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engels 06.23.09 at 9:00 pm

And if someone pops up out of the intermet to vote in favour of Bert then I shall stop talking about him if he isn’t here. If it’s just Bert then I shall continue with my prima-donna-ish ‘you’re so wrong I’m not even going to bother to explain how wrong you are’ act.

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Laleh 06.23.09 at 9:33 pm

Can I just interrupt to say that I haven’t read the whole post, just the snippets posted above. But does it bother anyone to read, “what I find really significant about the use of torture in the Algerian War is what it did to France”… umm, ok.

Let’s not talk about what it did to Algerians, both right then as they were being tortured (and some where torturing) and later. Because what really matters is the poor hurt guilty sensitive psyche of those lovely French people.

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