Movies

Terror's Advocate

The unsurprising confluence of far left and far right

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The first frames of Terror's Advocatedirector Barbet Schroeder's engrossing, dispassionate study of Jacques Vergès, France's infamous lawyer-to-the-beastly—are ceded to a fragile Cambodian pensioner wearing the high-cropped haircut of a 1950's-era American teenager. With calm conviction, Saloth Sar—better known by his nom-de-genocide Pol Pot—sets the tone of the document to follow: Monsieur Vergès, Saloth assures his interlocutor, is indeed a decent man, a man he holds in high esteem. So within minutes of reclining into their seats, viewers will sense that Jacques Vergès, friend of Mao and Carlos the Jackal, is already drowning; his Khmer character witness, with whom he studied at the Sorbonne and, rumor has it, conspired to take over Cambodia, graciously throws him a life preserver made of stone.

Cut back to Vergès, sitting in his opulent Paris office, puffing on a Cuban cigar, enveloped in smoke and tacky objects d'art bequeathed to him by various African tyrants. In the style of David Irving, he gently concedes that while some bad things happened during the evacuation of Phnom Penh, there was certainly no deliberate genocide by Pol Pot's cadres. Flashing a crooked grin, he assures the audience that under scholarly scrutiny the number of deaths commonly attributed to the communist Khmer Rouge—estimated at 1.7 million—just "doesn't tally." In the film's only deliberate repudiation of Vergès, Schroeder's camera rebuts this absurdity with a quick tracking shot across a row of fractured skulls, neatly stacked.

Terror's Advocate is a rambling, two-and-a-half hour recapitulation of Jacques Vergès' moral, intellectual and legal defense of various post-war terrorist movements, beginning with a detailed explication of his involvement in the FLN struggle to free Algeria from French occupation. Schroeder scrupulously avoids passing judgment on his subject, instead shepherding the viewer on a gruesome terror tour with Vergès—the Zelig of far-left revolutionary violence—as guide. Along the way, we discover a formidable legal tactician who has proffered his considerable courtroom talent to thuggish leaders like Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein and the both clumsy and brutal Baader-Meinhof terrorists; a terrorist supporter, if not direct participant, who went underground for eight unexplained years; a fulminating anti-Zionist with uncomfortable ties to the European Nazi movement.

Born to a Vietnamese mother and French father, Jacques Vergès, it seems beyond dispute, was regularly treated as a second-class citizen upon returning to his father's native country; the French colonial presence in his mother's native country too had a galvanizing effect on his political worldview. Schroeder cites Vergès's reaction to the Sétif massacre, during which his countrymen killed thousands of Algerians on the day of Nazi Germany's surrender, as the pivotal moment in his political development-though his ideological path was likely foreordained, as Vergès joined the Communist Party before the Second World War.

Writing at his Atlantic Monthly blog, Andrew Sullivan posited that what Vergès's background "reveals is that terrorism itself—especially in its modern variety—is rooted in the deepest sense of indignity and dishonor that afflicts many cultures reduced to servility by colonialism or indigenous pathologies. Vergès' profound anger from growing up in the developing world and righteous resistance to the French occupation of Algeria fuels his career of defending evil in the courtroom. You can see in this movie how violence begets more violence, how evil propels more evil, and how easy it is in advancing a cause to become morally corrupted by anger." A friend interviewed by Schroeder agrees, arguing that Vergès development was "born angry, born colonized."

But this argument can't satisfactorily explain why Vergès, son of a diplomat and beneficiary of France's most prestigious university education, accepted the murder of civilians as a precondition of colonial liberation. Neither does it explain why so many other, less-fortunate victims of colonial France—or colonial wherever—avoided colluding with terrorists like Carlos to attack civilian targets in Western Europe. And rather than a presenting a stultifying, implausible morality play—in which the colonized asks the foreboding Leninist question "What is to be done?"—Schroeder's film adds a disruptive wrinkle, ignored by Sullivan and most other critics: Vergès seemingly incongruous defense of Klaus Barbie, the Vichy-based Gestapo officer known as the "Butcher of Lyon." It is at this point that the screen fills with friends and colleagues who, while previously exculpating those who engage in revolutionary violence, now question Vergès moral seriousness, for it was his friend François Genoud, a Swiss Nazi and funder of Arab terrorism, that enlisted him to Barbie's defense.

Because of the Barbie case, Los Angeles Times reviewer Kenneth Turan sees Vergès as a "complex and contradictory character"—an allusion to both his leftist ideology and his close relationship with Josef Goebbels' old chum Genoud. The Barbie/Genoud saga, when considered next to his hard leftism, qualifies Vergès as "bottomlessly enigmatic," says Variety's review.

But there is nothing complex, contradictory, or enigmatic about it. Without a hand-holding narrator, one can be forgiven for missing the obvious: Rather than being motivated solely by the righteous anger of the oppressed, as Sullivan suggests, or politically conflicted, as many others have argued, it is not difficult to ascribe to Vergès a virulent strain of anti-Semitism that transcends traditional political labels. It is one thing to believe, as he argues throughout the film, that every loathsome despot deserves a fair trial (though one gets the sense that Vergès would decline to defend a tyrant like Augusto Pinochet), and quite another to accept the case of Klaus Barbie on the advice of an outspoken Nazi who is a "brother" in the struggle against Israel.

To believe that Vergès's political views are "contradictory," one must believe the argument of Vergès client and former lover, Red Army Faction (RAF) terrorist Magdalena Kopp. When interviewed by Schroeder, the dour Kopp reaches for her generation's Nuremberg defense: They were merely ordinary Germans, radicalized by the crimes of their parents' generation, though she fails to recognize her single degree of separation, via Vergès and Carlos, to those very murderers.

Rather, if one looks at the ideological meeting points of the European radical left and right, it is increasingly evident that there exist more commonalities than differences. (It should be explicitly noted that such ideological confluence affects only the extreme left and right, not those, say, critical of Israeli policy in general.) In Germany, former hard-left student leader Bernd Rabehl now inhabits the fringes of nationalist right-wing politics. Klaus Reiner Roehl, ex-husband of terrorist Ulrike Meinhof, too has migrated from the radical left to the radical right, contributing to the "post-fascist" newspaper Junge Freiheit. Former Baader-Meinhof terrorist Horst Mahler now acts as legal counsel for the neo-Nazi political party NPD, whose views on Israel and the United States are nearly identical to those put forth by his comrades in the RAF. (In one scene in Terror's Advocate, repentant RAF terrorist Hans Joachim Klein describes being spirited to Libya after the 1975 attack on OPEC headquarters in Vienna. Upon discovering that Klein was German, one Libyan comrade expressed his fondness for Adolf Hitler.) In an online diary entry, Holocaust denier David Irving describes his shock at discovering this convergence: "I like more and more of what The Guardian, this left-wing liberal British newspaper has to say; and its Sunday sister, The Observer. Perhaps I am really left-wing after all, a socialist, as was the aforementioned artist and statesman [Adolf Hitler]." It's worth noting here what is not mentioned in Terror's Advocate, that Vergès also defended Holocaust denier Roger Garaudy, himself an ex-Marxist revolutionary.

And yet, Jacques Vergès supposed straddling of ideologies is Terror's Advocate's hook; gasping audiences wonder how a man who believes in the liberation struggle of Third World can sidle up with those who believe in Hitlerian fascism.

But the skillful lawyer, the defender of the indefensible, is no match for the skillful documentarian, and Vergès unwittingly—and persuasively—argues for the prosecution.

Michael C. Moynihan is an associate editor of reason.

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  1. That the Nazis and Communists recruited from each others’ ranks in the 1920s-1940s is well-observed. Alot of kinship between hard right and hard left in Europe.

  2. Usually when someone is referred to as “complex” it is basically a dismissal of all of the evil things he has done because the writer agrees with something else about the person; and this case is no different. You saw the same sort of “on the other hand..” style of articles from the Right when Pinochet died. Personally, it makes me sick no matter where it comes from, but since there have been more leftist revolutionaries than rightists over the past half-century, you tend to see it more on the Left (cf. Mao, Lenin, Stalin, Che, Castro). It’s amazing how dehumanizing even the nicest person can become when discussing their favorite revolutionary (“You’ve got to break some eggs to make an omelet..”). This guy is just another in a long line of people that take Hitler’s comment to heart: “Who remembers the Armenians?”

  3. Haven’t seen the movie and am not familiar with this man. However, holding revolutionary/genocidal beliefs is not the same as acting on those beliefs and assisting the accused in securing their right to due process, it would seem to me, would be a greater service than mark against him.

    Put another way, if Jonny Cochran were a virulent racist, it might affect my respect for the man, but would not lower my opinion of his accomplishments.

  4. As I’ve said before, if you spout the correct buzzwords, the left will forgive you virtually any sin. Useful idiots are beyond stupid–for them, actions mean nothing, only words.

    One of the few seeming distinctions between the left and the right is that the right seems to demand more proof of action before they fellate someone.

  5. “Alot of kinship between hard right and hard left in Europe.”

    There’s a lot of kinship between hard right and hard left everywhere. Neither one is a big fan of individual rights.

    The last time I heard the “complex personality” euphemism being used it was describing Bobby Knight. I interpreted it to mean that he’s an asshole, but he’s successful. I don’t know about Bobby Knight, but it’s definitely true in this case.

  6. I don’t know about Bobby Knight, but it’s definitely true in this case.

    Oh yes, Bobby Knight is a grade A, bona fide, complete asshole.

  7. There’s a lot of kinship between hard right and hard left everywhere. Neither one is a big fan of individual rights.

    No, there’s a lot of kinship between the totalitarian left and the totalitarian right. The commonality is the totalitarianism. You’ll notice that there is very little kinship between the totalitarian left and libertarian left, or the totalitarian right and libertarian right.

  8. How exactly does Europe’s Far Right and Far Left play out on the advocates’ political map?

    Is it the Statist right/left? If that is the case how long do we have to wait to see mass ammounts of European’s becoming Libertarians?

  9. Anyone who can be in the same room with a monster like Pol Pot and not try to strangle the son of a bitch is a coward or a traitor to mankind.

    -jcr

  10. “how long do we have to wait to see mass ammounts of European’s becoming Libertarians?”

    There’s quite a lot of Libertarians in the former Soviet colonies of Europe.

    -jcr

  11. This shows that any political philosophy, no matter how sound, must be applied with compassion and pragmatism or risk morphing into something very ugly. As unlikely as it seems, didn’t Communism evolve from a branch of 19th century Anarchism?

  12. Tuck,

    While everyone deserves representation and due process, there’s one thing I don’t understand. It seems to me that every person Verges represented wound up convicted and in prison. How did these people allow themselves to be represented by this guy? Didn’t they check his track record? Surely there was at least one other attorney willing to take their cases.

  13. “How did these people allow themselves to be represented by this guy? Didn’t they check his track record? Surely there was at least one other attorney willing to take their cases.”

    I would guess there were many other attorneys who would take the cases. However, openly committing atrocities generally leaves little defense, especially when hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals stand ready to testify against you.

    It seems usually your only defense in these cases concerns the ability to construct a fair tribunal amidst intense political pressure to convict, as was the defense in the Saddam trial.

  14. Moynihan’s statement how easy it is in advancing a cause to become morally corrupted by anger and Brandybuck’s statement No, there’s a lot of kinship between the totalitarian left and the totalitarian right. The commonality is the totalitarianism. say the same thing.

    Totalitarianism isn’t written into the DNA of any political philosophy, but is an expression of a personal anger or hatred that transcends ideology. Orwell noted that Soviet-style Communism only gained a following in England after the stories about Moscow’s atrocities became known. Alger Hiss never got over “the horrible old women of Baltimore.” It is the personality of the totalitarian or terrorist that makes him such, not his belief system.

    No particular line of political thought is going to make one totalitarian; the flip side of this is that no particular line of political thought is going to prevent one from becoming totalitarian. People who think they don’t have to worry about that sort of thing tend to end up shedding blood with a clear conscience.

    Doesn’t the most popular libertarian work of fiction end with the bombing of a building? I can easily imagine some revolutionary, totalitarian libertarians lining up unionists, communalists, the wrong sort of college professors, and other Enemies of the People. Heck, Robbespierre walked around with a copy of The Rights of Man.

  15. Jacques Verges is an extreme case, but he has many American parallels. Noam Chomsky, the “peace” movement, the Palestinian flag wavers, name your favorites. The union of the left and the far right is a fact of political life in the USA today. They share a de facto, and sometimes explicit support of Islamofascism and a hatred of Israel amounting to a poorly disguised anti-Semitism. They consider the US, and not Al Qaeda and the Ba’athist holdouts as the bad guys in Iraq.

    The Democratic leaders in Congress pander to these people by doing everything they can to bring about the defeat of the US and the victory of Al Qaeda, not only by undermining our forces in Iraq but also through demanding that suspected terrorists be given all the rights of US citizens.

    The Democrats hope that US setbacks in the struggle against Islamofascist terrorism will work to their political benefit. There is a name for that sort of behavior. It is called “treason”.

  16. Treason is a crime punishable by death by firing squad, and Bulbman things the term is properly applied to people who speak out against government policies.

    Thanks for demonstrating my point about totalitarianism issuing from personality flaws, Bulbman.

    You probably consider your call to jail your political opponents a blow AGAINST totalitariansim, don’t you?

  17. Joe, I am not advocating executing or even prosecuting anybody. Supporting Islamofascism is not treason in the legal sense. I am using the word “treason” in the moral sense, to mean making common cause with people who are trying to destroy this country and everything it stands for.

    The alliance of the radical left and some on the extreme left with radical Islam is well documented. Just read what the radicals have said.

    Criticizing government policy is the right of every citizen and it is a good thing when it is done in a thoughtful and responsible manner. As a libertarian conservative I have found a lot to object to in the last seven years.

    Reasonable people can believe that it was a bad idea to invade Iraq. Maybe it was a bad idea. But now that we are there and finally starting to make some progress toward defeating Al Qaeda in Iraq it is both unpatriotic and immoral to advocate that the US cut and run.

    The US is not at present occupying Iraq. We are there with the permission of the legally elected government, which is recognized by the UN and by most countries. We should and will leave when that government asks us to leave.

    I withdraw the term “treason”. Let me just say that the radical leftists and rightists who make common cause with Islamofascism are unpatriotic and immoral.

  18. Correction: Make that “The alliance of the radical left and the extreme right with radical Islam is well documented”. My point is that both extremes are anti-American as well as anti-Semitic.

    A group of German leftists went to the West Bank to volunteer to fight for the Palestinian cause. When they arrived they were shocked to find that a bunch of German Nazis had preceded them. Hello! As any libertarian should know, the totalitarian left and the radical right are sisters under the skin.

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