Contemporary French Civilization


Contemporary French Civilization (1978), 2, (2), 177–189.


T E R R O R I S M AND THE L I B E R A L DILEMMA: THE CASE OF THE " B A T T L E OF A L G I E R S " John Talbott University of California, Santa Barbara Some years ago the journalist Jacques Duquesne asked whether "a democracy [can] defend itself against terrorism otherwise than by means denying the ideals by which it claims to be inspired." 1 Duquesne's question has lost none of its urgency. Governments of countries that not long ago had at least formal claims to be regarded as liberal democracies have for some years been practicing torture and loosing gangs of hired gunmen on terrorists real and rumored. More stable—or luckier—democracies have in the main resisted fighting fire with fire (police harassment of radicals falls far short of murder officially condoned). At least they have done so at home. Acting overseas, the governments of these same democracies have often forsaken principle for expediency. England in Ireland, the United States in Indochina, France in Algeria, all put aside considerations o f human rights in the interest o f repressing terrorism. In each case, repression provoked fierce controversy at home. Defenders of such methods argued that the insidious character and hideous practices of terrorism left no alternative to ruthlessness. Critics feared, as an American editorial writer recently put it, that "Governments that start out condoning a 'little repression' to quash their enemies often end up adopting repression as a permanent way of l i f e . " 2 The Battle of Algiers, the most famous episode of the Algerian war, affords a case study of a dilemma likely to confront liberal democracies for a long time to come. * * * * * Between January and October 1957 the French Army and

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University of California, Santa Barbara