Bush vs. Camus.

The law, lawyers, and the court.
Jan. 3 2006 4:01 PM

Bush vs. Camus

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

(Continued from Page 1)

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.

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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.

Peter Brooks teaches English and law at the University of Virginia.

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