I was watching the Battle of Algiers, a film on the Algerian resistance against the French occupation made in 1966, only four years after the actual declaration of independence of the country. A film most of you have probably seen or heard of but was completely unknown to me until yesterday!
Beyond the fact that the movie has many great subtleties at the level of its images, screenplay, etc I just want to point out from this film one underlying penetrating question that stayed on my mind. After the arrival of the “Colonel Mathieu” who is sent to destroy the terrorists FLN (Front de Libération Nationale) and the start of the “interrogation” that is a facade word for torture in order to extirpate information from any suspiciously looking Arab, there is a very interesting dynamic at play that the authors (possibly not voluntarily) put in image. The film shows in a very raw and powerful manner how the world (here the UN) sat silently while thousands of people were tortured in order to dismantle the FLN:
The eyewitness reports and recently published documents leave no doubt about the brutality, extent and systematic use of torture in Algeria. Part of the daily practice included mass rapes, submerging victims in freezing water or excrement, and repeated use of electric shocks. Even in the Algerian hinterland where there was no electricity, electric shock torture was carried out using the so-called ” Gégène“, utilising the pedal-powered generation system used for the radio stations.
So to go back to the film, the Colonel holds a press conference after we learn that one of the leaders of the FLN have committed suicide in his cell. After several questions prodding indirectly the practices of the military, one journalist decides to directly ask about torture. And the colonel stops him short by saying that he and his military institution are no ‘fascist’, “a bunch of us fought in the resistance against the nazis” he says by adding something like “we are designed to fight and win, once YOU have decided that Algeria should be to France”. The directors of this movie are verbalizing the idea that the army was actually imprisoned of French politicking, and was kind of ‘doing its job’. But there is something much more important to this event, especially when you view it in light of the half a century that passed since then.
Beyond the French policies of the time, it is the French people and their ‘voices’, the intellectuals, the press, and others that are targeted here. Of course I don’t think the directors of the movie tried to make a value judgment imparting full responsibility on either the army or citizens or whoever. And I personally think we would miss in this way the real lesson learned from this very contemporary movie. I think there is a lesson to be learned in the age of mass-mobilization politics. What’s important here is that there is a kind of symbiotic relationship between ‘terrorism’ and ‘democratic’ politics. People have probably written about this before, and no time here to refer and elaborate (but please advise if you’ve seen something written about it) but terrorism is kind of a by-product of democratic politics. Terrorism takes very seriously that it is the people at the end of the day – “in this day and age” – that are structurally linked to the decision taken to exploit, colonize, etc. other people.
But why are we horrified when civilians get killed etc. when most of the time it is civilian pressures that end up extracting political decisions? Of course we all know that when militants hit civilian targets, when they want to create “terror” it is exactly for that, to extract political gain. I just want to stress the fact that although this happens people are still horrified by militants not restricting their targets to military infrastructure. And beyond the fact that ‘terror’ is also practiced by the powerful to extract political gains or just for revenge (for example the Israeli in Lebanon in summer 2006), when we look at terrorist acts arising from an oppressive colonialist situation in this age of democratic politics, people cannot stand horrified at these practices, turning a blind eye at how decision-makers are actually representing them.
In western societies, people take pride in their revolutions, their ‘rule by the people’, the concept of democratic citizen etc. when it actually suits them. The revolutionary narrative (in America or France for example) is either a long gone metaphor that keeps the public at large self-imbued, satisfied by their ‘rights’ gained etc, or just a nationalist idiom that help create a collective imaginary. But when it comes to actual ‘dirty work’ on the ground performed by their military, there is some kind of disjunction. They are not linked to it. It is not them giving the orders. Structurally though it is. Actually the modern state and its democratic/capitalist practices permits this decentralization to the fullest. There is a fantasy in which the population of a country live in that is kept alive by the very institutions they glorify. But more on this later.