MEDIA
05/17/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Torture's Clear Lessons Go Unlearned

Over at Salon, Glenn Greenwald writes about the experience of watching Fox News explain an experiment conducted by French documentarians, in which participants on a fake game show were instructed to "administer electric shock to unseen contestants each time they answered questions incorrectly, with increasing potency for each wrong answer."

The experiment neatly mirrors a famous study conducted by Stanley Milgram, and the results were more or less the same as well: "Even as the unseen contestants (who were actors) screamed in agony and pleaded for mercy -- and even once they went silent and were presumably dead -- 81% of the participants continued to obey the instructions of the authority-figure/host and kept administering higher and higher levels of electric shock."

All of this apparently made Bill Hemmer and Martha MacCallum sad and confused and bothered!

The Fox anchors -- Bill Hemmer and Martha MacCallum -- were shocked and outraged that these French people could be induced by the power of television to embrace torture.

Speaking as employees of the corporation that produced the highly influential, torture-glorifying 24, and on the channel that has churned out years worth of pro-torture "news" advocacy, the anchors were particularly astonished that television could play such a powerful role in influencing people's views and getting them to acquiesce to such heinous acts. Ultimately, they speculated that perhaps it was something unique about the character and psychology of the French that made them so susceptible to external influences and so willing to submit to amoral authority, just like many of them submitted to and even supported the Nazis, they explained. I kept waiting for them to make the connection to America's torture policies and Fox's support for it -- if only to explain to their own game show participants at home Fox News viewers why that was totally different -- but it really seemed the connection just never occurred to them. They just prattled away -- shocked, horrified and blissfully un-self-aware -- about the evils of torture and mindless submission to authority and the role television plays in all of that.

Strikethrough satire is Glenn's, but the emphasis is mine, because it's worth pointing out that during the middle of the 20th century, it would have been entirely fair to speculate "that perhaps it was something unique about the character and psychology of the French that made them so susceptible to external influences and so willing to submit to amoral authority" because, during the 1950s, the French were torturing their way across Algeria, leaving behind lessons that we have apparently failed to learn.

"We all had the same reaction. We tried not to see it. We were shocked, but powerless. At first, revolted; by the end, indifferent. It has to be said, it's shameful." These are the words of a French soldier, Raymond Dumas, who witnessed torture during France's war in Algeria in the 1950s. They could, however, be the words of torturers everywhere and in every era.

The French case provides eerie parallels to today, when we are faced every day with new allegations about the use of torture in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo. A democracy like the United States, France has long affirmed support for human rights. Like the United States, it resorted to extreme forms of coercion as part of a war against what it called "terrorists."

France won key battles by torturing suspects for intelligence. But the bigger lesson is that it lost the war. The fact that French military leaders resorted to the extensive use of torture shows that they had lost the support of the populace at large. It is a lesson that seems to have been ignored by American leaders as they prosecute a war in Iraq.

That comes courtesy of George Washington University history professor Shawn McHale, who includes this quote from General Jacques Massu, commander of the French army in Algeria: "Torture is not indispensable in time of war, we could have gotten along without it very well." And if you head over to this Salon article on the same topic, Massu crops up again, re-emphasizing this:

Among many torture apologists, only Gen. Massu, with characteristic frankness, identified the additional factor. In Vietnam, Massu said, the French posts were riddled with informants. Whatever the French found by torture, the Vietnamese opposition knew immediately. And long distances separated the posts. In Algiers, the casbah was a small space that could be cordoned off, and a determined settler population backed the army. The army was not riddled with informants, and the FLN never knew what the army was doing.

And the French had an awesomely efficient informant system of their own. Massu took a census in the casbah and issued identity cards for the entire population. He ordered soldiers to paint numbers on each block of the casbah, and each block had a warden -- usually a trustworthy Algerian -- who reported all suspicious activities. Every morning, hooded informants controlled the exits to identify any suspects as they tried to leave. The FLN helped the French by calling a general strike, which revealed all its sympathizers. What made the difference for the French in Algiers was not torture, but the accurate intelligence obtained through public cooperation and informants.

In fact, no rank-and-file soldier has related a tale of how he personally, through timely interrogation, produced decisive information that stopped a ticking bomb. "As the pain of interrogation began," observed torturer Jean-Pierre Vittori, "they talked abundantly, citing the names of the dead or militants on the run, indicating locations of old hiding places in which we didn't find anything but some documents without interest." Detainees also provided names of their enemies -- true information, but without utility to the French.

The FLN military men had also been told, when forced to talk, to give up the names of their counterparts in the rival organization, the more accommodationist MNA (National Algerian Movement). Not very knowledgeable in the subtleties of Algerian nationalism, the French soldiers helped the FLN liquidate the infrastructure of the more cooperative organization and tortured MNA members, driving them into extreme opposition.

Right: so... torture yields bad intelligence, alienates would-be allies, exposes the torturers to the manipulations of their enemies, and -- reread the quote from Raymond Dumas, above -- instills a great moral shame among its ostensible beneficiaries. And the French eventually lost in Algeria. No wonder Massu eventually condemned the use of torture. Seems like we can learn a lot from the French, if we are only willing.

RELATED:
Those authoritarian, torture-loving French [Glenn Greenwald]
Torture Didn't Work for the French in Algeria Either [George Mason University, History News Network]
Does torture work? [Salon]

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