Saturday, April 17, 2004

The Age of Terror

Looking at the US media alone, one is led to believe that Arabs and Muslims have a monopoly of terrorism. A little known documentary The Age of Terror (Dirs. Jon Blair, Dan Korn, and Polly Williams) presents a perspective on terrorism that does not fit neatly into the boundaries of acceptable discourse here -- the perspective from which American viewers, if given a chance to see the film, would have much to gain.

The Age of Terror is divided into four parts, examining acts of terror committed in the name of national liberation, social revolution, God, and the state. It is a very uneven work, and its ambition to do a broad survey of modern terrorism ends up making it incapable of probing particular social, economic, and political contexts that gave birth to different acts of terror. The perspective that it offers is a liberal one, therefore it goes without saying that it sheds no light on everyday terrors of hunger, poverty, unemployment, dangerous work, and other normal conditions of capitalism that take a far more devastating toll on the lives of the majority of human beings than terrorism examined in the film did. For the film-makers, alien to the wisdom of Walter Benjamin ("The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule"), terrorism is an exception rather than the rule.

Nevertheless, The Age of Terror is worth a look, especially for a variety of fascinating interviews included in its first installment "In the Name of Liberation: Freedom by Any Means" (Dir. Jon Blair). It explores acts of terror committed in British Palestine, British Malaya, French Algeria, apartheid South Africa, and Northern Ireland. The Algerian case receives the most balanced treatment, as the film-makers interview former FLN (Front de Libération Nationale) commander Yacef Saadi; Zohra Drif, a former FLN guerrilla, who bombed the Milk Bar Café and now practices law in an office across the street from the Café; Jacqueline Guerroudji and Annie Steiner, French women who joined the FLN; and retired French military officers Paul Aussaresses and Pierre-Alban Thomas, responsible for torture and murder of FLN militants. In this section, terrors of insurgency and counter-insurgency are equally brought to the viewer's attention, while the futility of counter-insurgency in the face of a well-organized national movement for decolonization is subtly built into the film's argument. The sections about Palestine, Malaya, South Africa, and Northern Ireland, in contrast, are one-dimensional, perhaps due to the bias of the British film-makers; though the interviews with former African National Congress militant Robert McBride, former Irish Republican Army member Patrick Magee ("the Brighton Bomber" who tried to kill Margaret Thatcher), and Chin Peng, former secretary general of the Malayan Communist Party, are fair, British and South African counterparts of Paul Aussaresses and Pierre-Alban Thomas are nowhere to be found in the picture.

The Age of Terror has been shown at a number of film festivals and aired on Discovery Networks International in more than 150 countries as part of programming to commemorate the first anniversary of September 11th, but it was pointedly excluded from Discovery Channel's US programming for the same occasion. No wonder. Among other things, The Age of Terror points to the 1946 bombing of the King David Hotel (a British administrative and military headquarters then) by the Irgun (whose leader, Menachem Begin, became Prime Minister of Israel in 1977) in Jerusalem as the beginning of modern terrorism, i.e. the use of terror as a "media event."

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