Here's a very good post by Without Banisters, "a specialist in European history who is a little distracted by contemporary America right now," on France using torture during the Algerian war. It gives a little perspective on the sometimes quixotic-seeming effort to get the truth on the table:
The reason all the government censorship was necessary was that a small but incredibly passionate, intellectually high-powered anti-torture movement developed in France from late 1956. By any concrete measure, it failed: France continued to torture straight through to the miserable end of the war, and no one was prosecuted then or later specifically for having tortured (or ordered torture). But in another sense, its triumphs were enormous: people like Pierre Vidal-Naquet (read the Guardian's obit of him here), carrying on despite constant government harassment, prosecution, journal seizures -- and, eventually, despite death threats and bombings from hard-line supporters of France's presence in Algeria -- told the truth about what France was doing. Relentlessly. They laid the groundwork for France's eventual reckoning with its past, which is still going on today. (Vidal-Naquet's investigations of government involvement in torture, carried out under huge constraints during the war, remain indispensable for historians of the period.)
The French anti-torture activists also laid an invaluable groundwork for other people living in Western democracies, people like us, to draw on when we try to articulate what, exactly, is so absolutely corrosive and wrong about torture, and why the use of it signals a mortal threat to all that is good and right and admirable in our political system. (Vidal-Naquet got this better than anyone -- check out his 1963 book titled Torture: Cancer of Democracy.) What is especially significant, for our purposes: they did this while acknowledging that France was fighting an opponent that used terrorism against civilians.
(Hat tip: Henry)
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