Torture and the Twilight of Empire: From Algiers to Baghdad (Human Rights and Crimes Against Humanity) Review
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She shows how a militarised colonial state used torture and terror to forestall the collapse of its empire in the age of decolonisation. The political economy of colonial rule required violence, including torture.
Once torture was permitted, it became routine. Euphemised as `screening' and `pacification', its purpose was to enforce obedience. It continued right to the end of the war. The only way to stop it was to end the war.
Torture routinely practised was routinely denied. Politicians tried to excuse it as coming from `a few rotten apples', as `occasional excesses' and `regrettable incidents', and blamed the victims, claiming that Algerians `only understood force'.
Novelist Albert Camus condemned the violence by both sides, yet defended France's claim to Algeria, which could only be upheld by violence. He supported the settlers against the colonised, using the same arguments as the colonial state, calling for peace and coexistence within colonial rule.
Today, apologists for torture like Alan Dershowitz, Michael Walzer, Jean Elshtain and Michael Ignatieff assist politicians who destroy civil liberties at home and cause chaos abroad. Blair seeks solace in confession and God's forgiveness, preferring these to democratic accountability.
Lazreg shows that despite the cultural differences, French, British and American war practices and rhetorics are similar. Their wars of occupation disguise material and strategic interests as civilising or democracy-building. The French, like the US and British occupiers today, used the rhetoric of women's emancipation, claiming that they were `protecting' women from Islam.
And torture of prisoners was part of every French colonial war, part of every British colonial war, from Malaya in the 1940s to Kenya in the 1950s, Oman in the 1960s and Northern Ireland in the 1970s, and part of the current wars against Afghanistan and Iraq.
Finally, Lazreg argues that acts of terror, like any other crimes, do not threaten democracy. They do not even affect democracy - unless states respond by violating democratic rights, as the French state did and as the British and US states are doing. As she concludes, "The `war on terror' has become a war of terror."
Torture and the Twilight of Empire: From Algiers to Baghdad (Human Rights and Crimes Against Humanity) Overview
Torture and the Twilight of Empire looks at the intimate relationship between torture and colonial domination through a close examination of the French army's coercive tactics during the Algerian war from 1954 to 1962. By tracing the psychological, cultural, and political meanings of torture at the end of the French empire, Marnia Lazreg also sheds new light on the United States and its recourse to torture in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This book is nothing less than an anatomy of torture--its methods, justifications, functions, and consequences. Drawing extensively from archives, confessions by former torturers, interviews with former soldiers, and war diaries, as well as writings by Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and others, Lazreg argues that occupying nations justify their systematic use of torture as a regrettable but necessary means of saving Western civilization from those who challenge their rule. She shows how torture was central to guerre rvolutionnaire, a French theory of modern warfare that called for total war against the subject population and which informed a pacification strategy founded on brutal psychological techniques borrowed from totalitarian movements. Lazreg seeks to understand torture's impact on the Algerian population--especially women--and also on the French troops who became their torturers. She explores the roles Christianity and Islam played in rationalizing these acts, and the ways in which torture became not only routine but even acceptable.
Written by a preeminent historical sociologist, Torture and the Twilight of Empire holds particularly disturbing lessons for us today as we carry out the War on Terror.
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