Wednesday, November 17, 2010


Terrorism and torture - they're all over this week's (and most week's) headlines: "Germany tightens airport security over attacks threat." "Palestinian forces arrest Hamas cell in West Bank planning to attack Israelis." "Britain to pay ex-detainees in torture case."

Saturated with such stories since the bombings of 2001, we may think that terrorism and torture are 21st-century inventions, or at least that their incidence has greatly increased during the last decade. We need correctives like Patrick Smith's article in Slate last week: "News flash: Deadly terrorism existed before 9/11." Indeed it did - Smith lists example after example from the late 1980s. And torture, a typical response to terrorist attacks, is as old as recorded history.

Here is another corrective - a film you need to see, though not for date night. Little kids shouldn't watch it either. The Battle of Algiers is a fictionalized account of urban guerilla warfare during Algeria's bloody war of independence from France (1954-62). Winning a heap of prizes shortly after its release in 1966, it was immediately banned in France and essentially went underground for 37 years.

And then in 2003 the U.S. Pentagon showed the film to about 40 officers and civilian experts. From the flier announcing the screening:
How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas. Children shoot soldiers at point-blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film.
The Pentagon showing led to renewed interest in the film, which was restored and then released in the U.K., the U.S., and France in late 2003 and 2004. The DVD version followed in October 2004. You can rent it from Blockbuster online or from Netflix.

Why should you see this film? Partly because it's so very well done. From Ali La Pointe, a disaffected Arab teenager who becomes a leader in the National Liberation Front, to Colonel Mathieu, an unbending French military man who plays by the rules, each character first draws you in and then appalls you as terrorism and torture alternate in a deadly dance. In a mesmerizing sequence, a trio of Arab women don Western garb and charm their way past French guards into the European quarter - with disastrous results. Should you laugh? Cheer? Weep? You may find yourself doing all three. The one thing you won't be able to do is look away from the screen.

Another reason to see the film is to stimulate thinking and provoke discussion about current conflicts. In The Battle of Algiers,as in the news, terrorists kill civilians. Counter-terrorists move in and do the same. Torture is used to gain information. Tortured terrorists become martyrs and incite renewed terrorist activity. Violence explodes on all sides. It sounds so very contemporary.

And yet, whatever your opinions about Iraq or Afghanistan or Guantánamo, it's hard to take sides when the film takes you into the Casbah or the European quarter or the military headquarters. You find yourself sympathizing with the Arab child who grabs the officer's microphone and tells his people to resist, with the frightened women who hide insurgents in a well or behind a false wall, with the terrified man who talks rather than face another round of torture, and perhaps even with the teenager who has lost so much and now just wants to shoot somebody.

At the same time, you cringe when European teenagers are blown to bits when all they are doing is flirting and dancing to salsa music, or when tired businessmen grabbing a quick drink after work lose their lives because they neglect to see a basket left under a bar stool. You understand the colonel's perplexity when he says to reporters:
We aren't madmen or sadists, gentlemen. Those who call us Fascists today forget the contribution that many of us made to the Resistance. Those who call us Nazis don't know that among us there are survivors of Dachau and Buchenwald. We are soldiers, and our only duty is to win
But what about torture? a reporter persists. Colonel Mathieu gives the only answer he knows:
Should we remain in Algeria? If you answer "yes," then you must accept all the necessary consequences.
Terrorism and torture have a long and sordid history, and this film does not glorify either one. Yes, the terrorists eventually win and the French are expelled from Algeria. Yes, The Battle of Algiers has been accused of inspiring violence - though it has also been used as evidence that torture does not work. It's an ethically complex film that may haunt you for days. It might even turn you into a pacifist.

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