The other day, my friend Seth emailed me. He was involved in an ongoing debate with some friends about America's use of torture, and the justifications that have been and continue to be offered for it. He had made the argument that the American right today is doing something historically unprecedented when they defend practices like waterboarding with the claim that they aren't really torture: according to Seth, other regimes and their supporters have denied that they tortured at all, sure, but they haven't engaged in this kind of hair-splitting about whether x,y,z practices "count" as "real" torture. The phenomenon of a right-wing radio host getting himself waterboarded to prove it's "no big deal" is uniquely American, Seth said; it's really unimaginable that an analogous thing would have happened in, say, Latin America during the Dirty Wars. Seth's friends were dubious that this kind of logic was really a new phenomenon in the long, ugly history of torture regimes, and so he wanted to know if my knowledge of French discourses about the torture used in the Algerian War supported his point.
I'll get into what, exactly, I wrote to him in another post. (The whole banister/bannister incident has set me back few hours here.) What was most striking to me about our whole exchange, which turned out to be rather extended, was that it was enormously fun for me. A LOT more fun than actually working on the ol' dissertation. I got to thinking that the reason I began working on debates about torture and terrorism in 1950s-60s France in the first place is because of their remarkable resonance with and relevance to contemporary American debates about the same things. But now, years into my project, I pretty much never get the chance to actually write about those intersections and parallels -- I do strictly academic, historical work without a lot of room for that kind of reflection.
This blog is intended as an experiment in remedying that situation, and trying to inject some of the excitement that I felt writing to Seth back into my day-to-day life as a historian. Partly. I'm also planning posts on my various other obsessions (some of them much cheerier than torture & terror, I promise). We'll see how it goes.