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Churchill, Torture, And Britain's Finest Hour

Over on his blog, Andrew Sullivan posts a quote from Edward R. Murrow about the British during World War II. It reads, in part:

At a time when German bombers were coming through in the daylight over London, when the Germans were expected on the beaches the first foggy morning, the House of Commons, which might have been destroyed with all its members by one well-placed enemy bomb, devoted two days to discussing the conditions under which enemy aliens were being held on the Isle of Man. For the House of Commons was determined that, though the Island fell, there would be nothing resembling concentration camps in Britain, and the rights under law of enemy aliens would not be abused. That is what the British collectively believed.

I salute Andrew's harsh and frequent condemnations of torture, and I respect the point he is trying to make. But if you really want to compare the British between 1940 and 1945, and America during the Bush administration, you come across some ugly facts.

Let's just take one example: The Bengal Famine of 1943. Scholars still dispute what exactly caused the famine--and whether there were in fact sufficient amounts of food, amounts which went unused--but there can be denying that the Churchill government's response to this disaster was, in the historian Peter Clarke's word, gruesome. Upon learning that people were dying at a rapid rate (the total death toll was around 3 million) Churchill simply asked, in an infamous letter, why Gandhi had not yet starved. Eventually the government responded adequately, but this was of little solace to the millions of dead Indians. I mention this story not because it should distract us from the torture issue, but because it is worth keeping a little perspective. We do not need to idealize the past in order to make clear moral judgements.

--Isaac Chotiner