‘Can a great nation, liberal by tradition, allow its institutions, its army, and its system of justice to degenerate over the span of a few years as a result of the use of torture, and by its concealment and deception of such a vital issue call the whole Western conception of human dignity and the rights of the individual into question?’ So begins Pierre Vidal-Naquet’s classic study of the Algerian War, Torture: Cancer of Democracy (1963). For Vidal-Naquet, the horrors committed by French troops in Algeria were transplanted back into French society once the war was over in very material ways: the techniques once reserved for use in the colonies began to be employed by the gendarmerie and prison guards in ‘civilised’ Europe – in the nation that gave us the Enlightenment, no less. These were symptoms of a state, he argued, that had lost its moral authority. But writing just one year after the end of the war, Vidal-Naquet could only guess at the path this would lead France down.
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