A Che who missed his mark, or: Terrorism reconsidered

Carlos is the new biopic/docufiction about the ultrafamous superterrorist would-be revolutionary named Carlos. He was actually named Illich, but Carlos sounded better. It was his stage name. It’s way cooler.

The film is three hours long, and only about two hours are worth it, in my opinion. By the third hour, you’ve stopped caring what happens to Carlos.

But don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot going for this film. Many of the scenes are striking and the cinematography alone makes the film (or two hours of it) worth watching. The acting is thoroughly convincing, and we are at times totally sucked into the scene.

The story though…

It’s the story of a man who wants to be a revolutionary. The film is careful not to try to say why, nor to offer the viewer much insight into anyone’s motivation. The film wants to stay shy of ideology or politics, and just show us what it looks like to be a major player in the cold war era of antiWest terrorism.

Carlos starts with some fierce convictions: we have to act! The next thing he knows, he is depositing bombs where he is ordered to do so; he is assassinating whomever his boss tells him to. He is good at this. He climbs the ladder of the terrorist organization he is involved in.

One does not doubt his commitment, nor his principles, at least in the beginning. He is highly motivated to make the world a better place, and he thinks that the only way to do this is to violently challenge repressive institutions. In a world where those institutions are massive, extremely violent themselves, and fully entrenched in modern society, he justifies terrorism as a legitimate form of resistance. Perhaps there are innocents that die from time to time, but they are cogs in a giant machine of repression, a machine that Carlos dedicates himself to fighting.

Can terrorism be justified? The two thinkers with the most convincing arguments that I know of were friends, at least for a while, even as they painted a radically different image of the act of terrorism. For Jean-Paul Sartre, terrorism may be reprehensible,  but for desperate, deprived, oppressed people, that’s all they’ve got:

C’est une arme terrible, mail les opprimés pauvres n’en ont pas d’autres.

Another way of putting this is to ask, when looking at the desperate situation of groups that are oppressed by massive, violent regimes (think of slaves in the antebellum south in USA, think of the indigenous peoples of Rhodesia or apartheid South Africa. Think of Palestinians today), to ask: what options do they really have? 

The question some ask is: what are they supposed to do? The status quo is a scandal, and perhaps violence is a legitimate form of resistance. What are you supposed to do when you are “dead if you do, dead if you don’t?”

Miserable, deprived, oppressed, and poor, and without allies, facing an undemocratic, well-armed, well-funded, institutionalised oppressor? What are you supposed to do? Gandhi gave us peaceful examples,  but he certainly was not a pacifist. Martin Luther King gave us peaceful examples as well – and then was assassinated. But the French Revolution gave us a violent example. There was certainly plenty of terror getting tossed around in this episode of history, and it is one of the most celebrated moments of the modern era.

Sartre, in famous support of violent resistance, was looking at the Algerian situation, in which he found no justification for the French colonial oppression, and every reason to resist it. To be oppressed is to have your humanity taken from you; to resist is to take it back. And if the oppression is violent, the resistance, as well, must be violent. The resistor’s weapon is his claim to humanity; by it she or he says: I will not let you take from me my humanity, I will oblige you to give it back and to recognize me as an equal who will not accept to be trampled upon. Sartre continues: at the beginning of any revolt, resistance is inevitably violent, it’s the only way to get the oppressor to reconsider his position. He famously wrote:

” Abattre un Européen c’est faire d’une pierre deux coups, supprimer en même temps un oppresseur et un opprimé : restent un homme mort et un homme libre.”

By killing your oppressor, you are liberating yourself.

Albert Camus is the antidote to the overripe rhetoric of Sartre’s position. We might see the justification in resistance, but is it truly ever legitimate to kill someone who is not the active agent of an attack on your person? In his play Les Justes, Camus confronts a terrorist with the humanity of the man he has killed. It is perhaps easy enough to throw a bomb or pull a trigger, but to look into the face the human being whose life is at stake, that is another story. The weight of such an action becomes so enormous, it cannot be apprehended: the life of another person cannot be quantified and weighed in an ethical syllogism. Like the spot of blood in Macbeth, like the soldier in Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, the blood of the other contains a human abyss that can only be annihilated by a certain thoughtlessness, a certain refusal to look closely.

So back to Carlos. Carlos has convictions, he wants to make the world better, he is frustrated with limits of passive resistance, he thinks violence is the only real option. He involves himself with revolutionary-terrorist cells and submits to their hierarchy. Soon, he is a professional terrorist. He carries guns and grenades in his suitcase, he transmits secret documents, he uses code names for himself and has fake passports. Soon though, the lifestyle seduces him and he cannot separate himself from an image he has developed: himself as the terrorist, back when Che meets James Bond was a possible image to have of terrorism. Carlos becomes imbued with this image, and it overcomes him, until he is working for it rather than acting according to his principles. From this moment on, he acts as much in the service of his ego as any principled politics.

A picture of the real Carlos

The high point of the movie is the OPEC raid in Vienna in 1975, where Carlos and co., working under the Popular Front for Palestinian Liberation,  takes all of the ministers hostage, planning to shift the position of OPEC on oil prices. The scene is shot is an intensity and realist esthetic that has your nerves on edge and your heart pounding.

The film is very refreshing in its refusal to pander to Hollywood-induced expectations of violence of sex. There is violence, there is sex, but they are in the service of a story and a character, not in the service of the audience’s heart-rate.

In all, I recommend the film. It’s good, worth watching, but not a must-see.

p.s. Interestingly, the real Carlos, whose name is actually Illich Ramirez, has reacted to the film from his prison cell in Paris. He is, of course, pissed off about a couple of things. And he is eager to correct some of the details the film got wrong, according to him. It was Qaddafi, and not Saddam Hussein, for example, who originally ordered the OPEC raid. Etc, etc. One wonders if the film doesn’t fit right into the superstar self-image he seems to enjoy. Here is what a terrorist looks like once he gets old:


This entry was posted in Israel-Palestine Conflict, Movie reviews, Social critique in culture, State Capitalism--How the system works. Bookmark the permalink.

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