The Battle of Algiers: Terrorism, torture & ethics

The Battle of Algiers
The Battle of Algiers, directed by Gillo Pontecorvo, produced in 1966 depicts the 1950’s Algerian war of independence with chilling authenticity. Cast almost entirely with nonprofessional actors, and filmed in documentary neorealist style in the serpentine alleys, stairways and archways of Algiers’s Muslim Kasbah. Pontecorvo used newsreel film stock, telephoto close-ups, and a percussive, hard-driving musical score to create a swiftly moving political thriller (Hornaday). It is an anatomy of terror and counter terror that remains unsurpassed (Rainer). The film does not romanticize terrorists, demonize the French, or valorize violence in the name of some sort of people’s revolution; instead the director goes at once deeper and higher, examining each side’s motives and contradictions (Hornaday). Bombs and bullets do not choose their targets, individuals do, both sides do savage things and both can supply rational arguments to prove that they are on the side of morality. The film is poignant because it shows a level of bitter reality (Ebert) there are no heroes, only perpetrators and innocent victims. Children shoot French officials at point blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Men fire automatic weapons indiscriminately into crowds. Soldiers brutalize their captives and the military indiscriminately razes buildings and threaten civilians.

The film begins with the Front de Libération Nationale, or FLN, issuing a communiqué calling for the expulsion of all French from Algeria, followed by the murders of policemen, shot and stabbed seemingly at random by nondescript Arab perpetrators who then disappear into the crowd. The incidents multiply and the prefect, moving outside the law, arranges the clandestine bombing of a building in the Arab quarter associated with the rebels. Thereafter the FLN begins it notorious civilian bombing campaign (Beary). In the film’s strongest scene, three Arab women dressed as chic French girls infiltrate the European Quarter, which has been isolated from the Kasbah by checkpoints, in order to plant bombs in two cafes and an Air France office. We see businessmen at the bar, travelers waiting to board planes, teenagers dancing, and children eating ice cream cones… all about to be incinerated (Rainer). The bombs detonate simultaneously, littering the French Quarter with maimed bodies and debris, sending the populace into a panic. Paris responds by deploying French Special Forces to Algiers, and a news bulletin informs that “the Inspector General has taken drastic steps to ensure law and order and to protect people and property.” It goes on to say that the Army will, “take over responsibility for law and order … using all civil and military measures necessary.” The Army, led by Lt. Colonel Philippe Mathieu, has a strategic plan to track down and stop the terrorists by using severe interrogation, i.e. torture (Sailer).

Thus we have the ethical dilemma of the film, at least from the French point of view. Is torture a justifiable counter measure to terrorism? Can it be justified at all, if so then on what grounds and on whose authority? The stakeholders in the film are threefold: The public, the French military, charged with protecting the public, and the FLN terrorists, who’s goal is to wage war against the French in Algeria. It would seem that protecting innocent people is good, and killing them is bad, therefore measures taken in pursuit of the good are moral. It also seems that torture, the deliberate infliction of physical suffering intended to elicit intelligence (Peters) is also wrong. But it cannot be that simple. The film deals in dark subject matter, about which there are no clear answers. Condemning French brutality outright, comes with the corollary of implicitly approving the terrorist’s acts. Likewise, utter disapproval of the terrorists implies unspoken sanction of French actions.

From a utilitarian perspective, protecting a majority against a minority of murderers can be seen as grounds to torture those who have relevant information. Col. Mathieu recognizes that fact. He tells is men: “the problem, as usual, is: first, the enemy; second, how to destroy him. There are 400,000 Arabs in Algiers. All against us? Of course not. There’s only a minority that rules by terror and violence.” Moreover, under utilitarian thinking torture is obviously justified, and the single right thing to do, when it is the only way to prevent a serious and