As I've read blogosphere debates about America's "war on terror" and use of torture over the last couple of years, I've been struck by how infrequently French Algeria comes up. Take Andrew Sullivan, one of the most passionate anti-torture voices out there and a blogger that I like a lot. Sullivan mentions the French use of torture in Algeria in passing occasionally, and a couple of times (here and here) he links to substantive discussions of some historical parallels. But he refers more often to the Khmer Rouge and the Nazis.
If you're just looking for horrific historical examples of the use of torture, you certainly need go no further. But what's interesting about France during the Algerian War, and why I've been slightly surprised that it hasn't gotten more play, is that it provides us with an example of what happens in a liberal Western democracy when it decides to use torture against an opponent that uses terror. (Hint: it isn't pretty.) To think that's interesting and worth examining, you don't need to believe that the Algerian War of 1954-1962 was highly analogous to today's so-called War on Terror (it wasn't) or that the Algerian independence fighters resembled today's Al Qaeda ideologically (they didn't).
Historical comparisons are hazardous by their very nature. But historical knowledge is empowering and useful. And for Americans today, historical knowledge of what happened in French civil society and politics when France used torture in Algeria would be especially useful. Future posts will lay out some of the basics.