Shades of Abu Ghraib

Shades of Abu Ghraib

Mini Teaser: The grisly subject of torture is back with us again. A look back at the dark days of de Gaulle's struggle to hold onto Algeria reveals consequences that echo loudly in our newest fight to retain what it means to be civilized.

by Author(s): Alistair Horne


IN 1968 France passed an amnesty for all crimes, by French and Algerians alike, committed during the war. It was a wise and sensible measure. In the ongoing debate in the United States, one can only agree with President Obama's declaration that the country should be "looking forward, not backward." Is there any purpose in pursuing members of the CIA now for acts they committed on the honest assumption that they were acting responsibly under regulations prescribed by the previous government? To do so would threaten to eviscerate all intelligence operations, as well as utterly demoralize serving officers. Nuremberg precedents seem hardly relevant. On the other hand, it may be desirable for former-Vice President Cheney to be pressured into expanding on specific cases where, he claims, "enhanced interrogation" did prevent acts of terrorism.

If, as suggested, interrogation procedures in the United States are now to be handed over to the FBI, will this make them necessarily either more effective or more abuse-proof? How will these "interrogation squads" be recruited-from among the Episcopalian clergy?

One aspect that continues to arouse most controversy in Britain is "rendition." If a case can be made out for interrogation requiring Islamic expertise, then so be it. But if, on the other hand, it is done as the calling upon other cultures to carry out procedures distasteful in the West, then it is sheer cowardice, deserving of total contempt and prohibition.

There may well be a case for a redefining of what constitutes torture. Subjecting a suspect to threats of mutilation by an electric drill, or to threats that his wife will be raped, or his family murdered, is obscene-but surely not torture, unless the threats are actually carried out? More to the point, is "sleep deprivation," strictly speaking, torture? It was-if combined with the physical abuse that seems to have accompanied it under post-9/11 procedures. During World War II it was used, scientifically and without such physical maltreatment, most effectively against German agents by Britain's MI-5. I would support some redefinition here.

But the danger, to my mind, is that the most restricted permissive clause in the principle of "No Torture" leaves a gap for the brute, the would-be torturer within us all, to rush in. Setting morality aside, the Algerian War, and every other instance, has proved that to resort to torture is both ineffective and counterproductive. My own message is a simple one: No. Never. Under any circumstances. Then, at least, the law can be clear and unambiguous. Otherwise what Prefect Teitgen called the "varnish of civilisation" disappears.


Alistair Horne's Kissinger: 1973, The Crucial Year is published by Simon & Schuster. His A Savage War of Peace: Algeria, 1954-62, was reissued by New York Review of Books Classics in 2006, with a new preface updating it to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. 

Image: Pullquote: Abu Ghraib was like handing al-Qaeda, free and gratis, a new and lethal secret weapon.Essay Types: Essay