42 Days

By Julian Barnes

In 1640 the Star Chamber was abolished, and with it the judicial right to use torture. In 1660, come the Restoration, Charles II felt a renewed royal need to torture various suspected traitors and renegades. But it would have been politically awkward to legalize torture again. Happily, the practice was still legal in Scotland, so the accused were shipped up there, tortured, and the evidence obtained then used in an English court to secure their conviction and execution. Who said the Americans invented extraordinary rendition?

Like most countries, we claim to have a long tradition of liberty and libertarianism. Like most countries, we allow political necessity to be constantly invoked to reduce those liberties. The disjunction between the two is covered by hypocrisy, another long British tradition. And hypocrisy needs language to express itself. America is way ahead of us in this at the moment. Take, for example, that disgusting term ‘torture lite’. Or Cheney’s jocular description of water-boarding as ‘a dunk in water’ and ‘a no-brainer’. Or the piece of Bushite ‘logic’ whereby, since ‘The United States does not torture,’ everything an American torturer does in his nation’s defence is, by definition, not torture. Britain is currently lagging behind such turbo-charged hypocrisy, though our exact complicity in extraordinary rendition and torture will, eventually, come out.

But this is not about 42 Days, is it? Certainly it is. The same mental weaselling, the same legal conniving, the same suave hypocrisies apply, in both the high case of torture and the (apparently) more mundane case of adding 14 to 28. We like to say that freedom is indivisible, but this is a piety; or rather, it is true only in the imagination or in Utopia. In the daily, political, hypocritical world, freedom is constantly being divided, chipped into, explained away. How did we so quickly become the country with more surveillance cameras watching us than anywhere else in the world? Claiming to defend British liberty by diminishing British liberty has become a political norm over the last 30 years or so. Digging in the heels and shouting is now more important than ever.