Bush vs. Camus

What Albert Camus and the “little-ease” say about U.S. torture policies.

In the intensifying debate on the U.S. treatment of detainees in its “war on terror,” I find myself thinking of a key moment in the monologue of Albert Camus’ abject narrator in his novel The Fall. That narrator, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, “empty prophet for shabby times,” tells his listener of the medieval prison cell known as le malconfort, the little-ease—a cell of “ingenious dimensions,” not high enough to stand up in, not wide enough to lie down in. The prisoner had to spend his life crouching—a way to teach him, says Clamence, that he must be guilty, since innocence consists precisely in being able to move about freely.

It’s impossible, Clamence claims, to conceive of a prisoner in the little-ease as innocent. “That innocence could be reduced to living all hunched up is an hypothesis I refuse to entertain for a single second.” It would constitute a moral scandal to think that an innocent person could be punished in such a way. Such a possibility doesn’t bear thinking about. It’s much more comforting to assume that anyone in the little-ease must be, by definition, guilty.

Camus wrote The Fall during the Algerian War, when France was beginning to face a crisis of conscience over torture similar to what the United States faces now. Indeed, clear parallels exist between the French experience in Algeria and the American experience in Iraq: Like the war on terror, much of the French effort to pacify and retain Algeria was waged against a nearly invisible enemy that tended to melt into the landscape. Intelligence-gathering was crucial—and that led to torture.

The French complicity in torture eventually was publicly exposed and denounced in La Question, a firsthand account of his torture at the hands of the French army written by Henri Alleg, editor of the newspaper L’Alger Républicain. La Question was published in February 1958 and quickly banned by the French government—but not before it made its mark. No longer was it possible for the French public to refuse to see what was going on. It was the French equivalent of the New Yorker photos of Abu Ghraib and exploded upon the French conscience in much the same fashion.

An American observer of the various forms of detainee abuse that have been exposed in the past years—including secret prisons, “renditions” to foreign regimes that practice torture, and the use of “enhanced interrogation” techniques, such as water-boarding—could of course take Clamence’s position: Anyone subjected to torture clearly deserves it. Such a person must be guilty. It is morally unacceptable to believe that anyone treated in such a way could be innocent.

While our administration may not be guilty of confining its prisoners in cells as horrible as the little-ease (though reports suggest that some approach that condition), the cells it has built at Guantanamo approximate the name for the deepest and dankest of prisons in medieval castles: les oubliettes, the places you threw people and forgot about them. These were the prisoners with no chance of ever leaving their cells; people with no prospect of legal process ahead of them, people without access to trial or appeal or the simplest forms of justice. In Guantanamo—a location chosen deliberately in order to put detainees beyond the reach of the law—our administration has created such a place of oblivion and fought all efforts to open it up to legal process. We don’t yet know what other secret sites may harbor prisoners in still more unspeakable conditions.

The Bush administration’s attitude, of course, is that we can’t know, and don’t ever need to know—because it insists, as did Clamence, that its designation of these prisoners as enemy combatants, terrorists, jihadists, is sufficient to justify such treatment. They should not have access to U.S. courts, and since they are not POWs they won’t necessarily be returned home at the end of hostilities—which in any case have no foreseeable end, since the war on terror will presumably be ongoing forever. One suspects that the administration was as unprepared in its dealing with prisoners as it was with all the other sequels of the Afghan and Iraq wars. The prisoners have now become something of a burden and an embarrassment, not to mention an expense.

As for torture—however that word has been parsed by the administration, we know torture has occurred—Jean-Paul Sartre in response to Alleg’s La Question made a point ominously pertinent to us today:

In 1943, in the Rue Lauriston (the Gestapo headquarters in Paris), Frenchmen were screaming in agony and pain: all France could hear them. In those days the outcome of the war was uncertain and we did not want to think about the future. Only one thing seemed impossible in any circumstances: that one day men should be made to scream by those acting in our name.

I share Sartre’s horror at what is being done in our name.

Camus was himself famously unable to take a clear stance on the French colonial war in Algeria—he was, after all, French and Algerian. The Fall is, among other things, an expression of anguish about the difficulty of making any claim to innocence. The repulsive figure of Clamence wants to implicate the whole of humanity in his own guilt—just as President Bush seems to want to implicate the American people in the decision to torture. Camus offers no clear or satisfying message in response to Clamence’s insinuating vileness.

Clamence wants to proclaim the guilt of everyone—only generalized guilt can assuage his own culpability. In the wake of the Algerian war, the French were forced to continue to face up to their complicity in torture: Memoirs and histories have only confirmed Alleg’s testimony and Sartre’s verdict. It is not too difficult to foresee a day when Americans will also have to assess, in a sober retrospect we can’t yet have, how their rulers dragged them into the torture regime.

As for Camus, earlier on, in an essay published in the newspaper Combat in 1946, he summed up the moral ground he was seeking in an arresting phrase: “Ni victimes ni bourreaux.” In Dwight MacDonald’s translation for the review Politics, Camus’ phrase is “neither victims nor executioners.” The word bourreau means torturer as well as executioner. “Neither victims nor torturers.” From the one—from the legitimate American sense of victimization following 9/11—we have passed to the other. To the complicity with torture proposed by Bush and his rationalizers, there seems to me only one response: an absolute “no.” As to Clamence’s wily insinuations, so to our administration’s renditions, secret prisons, and enhanced interrogations: no.