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06/14/07 12:00AM By Mike Martin
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(HOST) During the recent, first-round Presidential candidate debates, commentator Mike Martin found himself thinking - quite unexpectedly - about Algeria.

(MARTIN) When the French fought the Algerian War of 1954 to1962, they lost a little bit of their soul. It was more than a war, it was a debacle that turned the French against the French and brought down the Fourth Republic. And when French generals approved the use of torture against the insurgents, it seemed as if they had even forgotten the values that define what it means to be French. You know, Libert Egalit Fraternit .

The French were fighting a determined enemy who used terror as a weapon by bombing caf s and other public places. By conventional measures, the French military was much stronger, but asymmetrical force can backfire in guerilla campaigns. When the French humiliated Algerians at countless checkpoints, cordoned off neighborhoods, imposed curfews, demolished sections of Algiers' old city, and terrorized civilians with elite shock troops called les Paras, they lost the hearts and minds of the Algerian population.

And even when the French were winning military victories, their brutal disregard for human rights doomed the possibility of a long-term solution. The rape of Algerian women was widespread, and certain French generals approved the use of summary executions and torture, ostensibly to break-up guerilla cells and prevent terrorist attacks.

In the end, the French lost Algeria, but they also lost their sense of truth and justice. Until very recently, torture in Algeria remained a dirty secret that everyone knew about but never discussed.

Here in the United States we have a long tradition of being the good guys, and, starting with George Washington, all our great Presidents have taken a strong stance against torture. It's important to note that we even gave due process and humane treatment to Nazi war criminals.

But lately it seems that American culture has been growing more accepting of torture. We use euphemisms like enhanced interrogation techniques and "waterboarding," but it's still torture. And we should worry when our Attorney General calls the Geneva Conventions quaint and writes memos about how to parse legal definitions of torture.

What's worse, our next leaders may not do any better. At a recent debate between Republican Presidential candidates, many of the candidates talked tough about torture and seemed to be imitating Jack Bauer, the tough, sexy, terrorist fighter from the television series 24. But in real life the efficacy of torture is in doubt, since victims will generally say anything to end the pain.

Perhaps John McCain, the only Republican candidate who has actually been tortured, put it best at the debate: "It's not about the terrorists, it's about us. It's about what kind of country we are."

Personally, I agree with the senator, but I'd like to take the sentiment one step further: it's about what kind of country we want to be. I grew up in America always believing that we were the good guys, and I want my children - and the rest of the world for that matter - to believe that too.

America must end its new flirtation with torture. It's just too - un-American.

Mike Martin writes about issues of culture and education and teaches French at Champlain Valley Union High School.

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