Monday, August 22, 2005


Why would a state founded on human rights principles and ostensibly committed to the promotion of those principles around the world engage in serious and sustained assaults on the lives and dignity of scores, if not hundreds, of persons under its direct control? To put it more directly, why has the United States resorted to torture?

There are a number of very simple explanations, but most are wrong. “It was just a few bad apples.” “Training of certain military police units was inadequate.” Worst of all: “Americans may have used certain ‘harsh interrogation’ techniques, but there was no torture.” In reality, Americans tortured detainees in Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Bagram, and elsewhere for a number of complex and confusing reasons. The psychology and, more importantly, the values of individuals certainly played a role. How else can we understand why Spec. Charles Graner acted sadistically at Abu Ghraib while Spec. Joseph Darby was appalled by what he witnessed? But looking at the role of individuals obscures the more important matter of policy. Torture was American policy.

The Bush Administration’s disdain for international law established a permissive context for the violation of American obligations under the Convention Against Torture and the Geneva Conventions, but the more immediate reason torture was sanctioned was Massuisme.

To understand Massuisme we must do what former counterterrorism official Richard Clarke recommended to colleagues seeking to understand the challenge posed by post-9/11 terrorism. We must look to the French experience in Algeria. (To be more specific, Clarke advised his colleagues to view Gillo Pontecorvo’s film The Battle of Algiers.)

During Algeria’s struggle for independence from France, Algerian nationalists engaged in a brutal campaign of terrorism while French counterterrorist policy employed torture widely against suspected terrorists. The French public was generally ignorant of the use of torture until 1958 when Henri Alleg published The Question, in which he described his own torture at the hands of the French police and paratroopers. The book, with a preface written by Jean-Paul Sartre, was banned and confiscated. It was the first time the French government had engaged in such draconian censorship since the eighteenth century. Nonetheless, copies smuggled into France from abroad ensured that The Question would become for France what two CDs containing digital photos from Abu Ghraib would be for the United States: the occasion for an exercise in national soul-searching.

France’s Gen. Jacques Massu defended the use of torture in the Algerian war in a 1971 apologia entitled La Vraie Bataille d’Alger. His argument, that torture was necessary under the particular circumstances of the war, that French torturers in Algeria were merely doing what the state required in a crisis, gave rise to the neologism, Massuisme. While no one in a country that felt compelled to rename French fries in retaliation for France’s criticism of American policy in the war on terror would ever use the term, it is Massuisme that most cogently describes the principal American rationale for torture or the use of degrading treatment to “soften up” prisoners for interrogation.

Massuisme does not assert that torture is legal; it argues instead that torture is a matter of national security. However much we might oppose torture under ordinary circumstances and however much we might find our use of torture regrettable, our ability to defeat terrorism requires that we engage in it. Or so goes the argument.

Those who have established the policy would prefer not to admit (much less debate) their belief that torture is necessary. They would prefer to have us believe that no torture has occurred, that everything has been legal, or at least that any crimes that may have occurred have been aberrations. What we have in the present circumstance, therefore, is Massuisme without Jacques Massu’s courage—a measure of courage that at least permitted the French to engage in an honest debate about torture and necessity (albeit a decade after the end of the Algerian war).

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but it is a poor guide to ethical behavior. William Pitt noted over two centuries ago that “necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants.”

If Americans are going to continue rejecting all things French, Massuisme--the argument for torture based on necessity--should be the next thing to go.