On December 4, 2013, the New York Times reported the death of General Paul Aussaresses, one of the top military men in Algeria during the years of the Algerian national liberation struggle. Aussaresses was an unabashed colonialist whose politics were quite rightist in nature. One of his primary roles in the French war in Algeria was to interrogate anti-colonial fighters. Of course, this involved torture. Unlike many torturers before and since Aussaresses’ time in Algeria, the general never seemed ashamed of the torture he ordered. In fact, he spoke about it in interviews and eventually wrote a book in 2001 wherein he described some of the torture that took place. The book, titled Special Services: Algeria 1955-57, detailed torture techniques and instances. Furthermore, it made clear that the torture was standard policy.
Naturally, the French establishment expressed shock and something approaching revulsion when the revelations of torture were admitted. After all, many years had been spent denying that torture did occur or, if it did, it was the work of rogue military members. Aussaresses’ book and interviews made it clear that these denials were nothing but lies. It also became clear that the policy of torture was not limited to any particular wing of the French government. Indeed, the Socialist Francois Mitterand, who was Justice Minister during the war against the Algerians, was fully informed of the practice. It seems reasonable to assume that his knowledge was shared by most other ministries, parliamentarians and military officials.
The reports of the general’s death fail to mention the publication of two books in France during the period covered by the General’s book. Those books, titled The Gangrene and The Question, were written by individuals tortured by the general’s men. The first is an account of seven Algerian intellectuals who were tortured by French special police in Paris for their support of the Algerian struggle for independence. The latter is an account by a French journalist who was also tortured in Algeria because he too supported the struggle of the Algerians. When these books were published, they created a storm of disbelief and protest in France. After selling 30,000 copies in two days, The Gangrene was banned, although bootleg copies were available after French President DeGaulle ordered all available copies of the book to be confiscated and the plates destroyed. The book, The Question, was also censored after selling 60,000 copies in less than two weeks.
The Question was written by journalist Henri Alleg and describes in fairly vivid detail the methods used by the French torturers in Algeria. Akleg was a Frenchman who supported the Algerian struggle for independence without reservations. His newspaper, the Alger républicain, provided its readers with an anti-colonial perspective in its coverage of the independence struggle and editorialized in favor of the anti-colonial fighters. Within a year of being made head of the journal, it was shut down by French colonial authorities. He continued to write articles and work with the independence struggle. He was arrested in June 1957 after months underground. The crude electrical shocks, the water-boarding, the beatings and sleep deprivation; all are graphically described along with other physical and psychological abuses utilized in the name of the French nation. Jean Paul Sartre wrote an essay about the book’s content that became the preface to the US edition. In that essay, titled “La Victorie”, Sartre asks some important questions. How can a people become the executioner as easily as it was once a victim? Does patriotism have to “precipitate us into dishonor?” Could I be intimidated to betray my friends in fear of being tortured? Could I become a torturer myself?
Sartre does not pretend to have the answers. It is by asking the questions that a writer can best create a necessary conversation and maybe even a transition to a better world. However, his admonition that “Torture is neither civilian or military: nor is it specifically French; it is a plague infecting our whole era” is the sentence that should concern us most fifty-five years after those words were composed. Torture has not disappeared. It is not reviled by the people of the great nations even as much as it was in France in 1958. Indeed, an argument can be justifiably made that torture is not only excused but welcomed among many quarters. The occupation of and war in Iraq, the continued existence of Washington’s prison at Guantanamo Bay and the international rendition program incorporating military, corporate and intelligence entities have all exposed the continued use of torture by Washington. The fact that nobody higher in rank than a non-commissioned officer has been convicted of this torture is even greater testimony to the general acceptance of torture and detainee abuse. One can easily argue that by refusing to consider punishing those in the military and intelligence establishment that ordered the torture, the political establishment desires torture to be an acknowledged part of US foreign policy.
While it would be naive to pretend that no torture took place during Washington’s war in Vietnam or among its clients dictatorships in Latin America, Indonesia and elsewhere, there exists a qualitative difference between the public (and the public’s) reaction to revelations about the torture that took place in those endeavors. That difference was that a fair amount of the public was repulsed by the torture. This caused most politicians to express a similar dismay, with the result often being an end to the abuse. In the wake of the revelations regarding torture and detainee abuse in US prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan (not to mention elsewhere around the world), the primary response by the rulers and the media was one that attempted to redefine those acts as something other than torture. By doing so, Washington and London hoped to legitimize the actions of their torturers. As noted before, given the lack of prosecution by the legal systems in either country, it would appear that they have succeeded.
This would not be possible without the acceptance by the public of such methods. Even if that acceptance is merely silence, it is considered by the torturers and those that hire them to be support. Such support translates into one thing, and one thing only: complicity. By not speaking out against the torture and abuse, by accepting the existence of Guantanamo Bay and Bagram prison (not to mention those we have not named), and by pretending that the rendition program somehow keeps our hands clean, we are complicit. In some future time, either we or our children will be forced to answer for our silence. And for our complicity.