Grim Double Feature

A new documentary, "Terror's Advocate" (mostly in French, with English subtitles), offers a fascinating insight into the history of post-WWII terrorism. Centered around interviews with Jacques Verges, a French-trained lawyer who has defended everyone from Klaus Barbie to Carlos the Jackal as well as representing seemingly every major leftist terrorist group to have operated in Europe and elsewhere over the last half-century (Baader-Meinhof, Red Brigades), the film offers chilling observations from an unrepentant Verges as well as many of his cohorts and clients -- many of whom are repentant. Verges, now in his 80s but extremely lucid, is scary in his ability to charm even while, for example, minimizing the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge and his friend Pol Pot.

The film is obviously of interest for its potential insights on the current debate over terrorism, though it offers few answers to a problem for which there are no good answers. One theme that emerged was that terrorism has been a depressing part of life in Europe for decades. There have been various series of bombings across Europe instigated by sophisticated networks of terrorists. One such series, one observer in the film suggests (rather unpersuasively), ended simply because the terrorists ran out of bombs. More pointedly, almost all of the terrorists were tracked as criminals and caught and prosecuted as criminals, after which their terrorist activities stopped.

The film also shows, however, the dangers of providing legal process to accused terrorists. Verges happily recalls how he and other lawyers were the lynchpins in communicating orders from jailed terrorists awaiting trial to those outside who followed those orders. While it is obviously necessary not to go too far in restricting access to counsel, it is not possible to see this film without appreciating the important and dangerous role that complicitous lawyers can play in a terror plot.

Verges also represents a contorted version of the argument that a lawyer should provide a vigorous defense to any client, because his version of a vigorous defense was to refuse to deny the charges but simply to assert that his clients did things for the greater good. (Although this might otherwise count as a spoiler alert, the following is from the trailer for the film. Verges says: "People ask me, 'Would you have defended Hitler?' I answer that I would even defend Bush. But only if he agreed to plead guilty first.")

Verges cut his teeth during the French occupation of Algeria, which was one of the first (if not the first) insurgencies based on bombings of civilians. The film uses some footage from the classic film "The Battle of Algiers" (in French and Arabic, with English subtitles), which is a non-documentary film that recreates the time leading up to Algerian independence. Together, the films make an uneasy case that the fight against French colonialism was ugly but ultimately just; but no matter how one feels about that historical episode, "Terrors' Advocate" shows how easily ideals can be twisted into brutal, mindless murder. These are not uplifting films, but they are important.

Posted by Neil H. Buchanan