Saturday, January 22, 2005

Battle of Algiers redux

As many of you are no doubt aware, Gillo Pontecorvo's remarkable 1965 film "The Battle of Algiers" has been re-released on DVD. If you've never seen it (or if you last watched it it several decades ago), this film is worth a look. It's one of the few really serious films I know about revolution and counter-revolution--and, specifically, about revolutionary terrorism and counter-terrorism and how they work.

I don't mean this as an unqualified endorsement of Pontecorvo's perspective. This film was unquestionably brilliant, powerful, and illuminating. But even back in the 1970s I found it in some ways a morally and politically troubling film, even a dangerous one. Fundamentally, Pontecorvo's sympathy lies with the revolutionary terrorists of the Algerian FLN. But the political history of Algeria since independence, which has hardly been inspiring, should provoke some reflection on the position shared in the film by the FLN militants and the French counter-revolutionary officer, "Colonel Mathieu"--namely, that in life-and-death politics, the end justifies the means (terrorism on the one side, torture on the other). For example, it's not implausible that the horrifying character of the Algerian civil war of the 1990s, marked by massive atrocities on all sides, was at least partly rooted in the political experience through which independent Algeria came into being. And in the historical context of the 1970s and early 1980s Pontecorvo's film (like the popularity of Franz Fanon's writings, also linked to the Algerian revolution) helped contribute to a pervasive romantic cult of revolution, and especially of urban guerrilla terrorism, that had a lot of unpleasant consequences not just in the Middle East but also in Latin America, western Europe, and elsewhere.

Nevertheless, part of what makes Pontecorvo's film important is that it genuinely tried to confront the moral and practical dilemmas posed by revolutionary terrorism (perhaps more than some people who saw the film). And its treatment of the logic of both political terrorism and and counter-terrorism was penetrating and sophisticated. I recommend it.

Yours in struggle,
Jeff Weintraub

P.S. I also recommend the three pieces below, which are all worth reading (whether you agree or disagree).

P.P.S. In his piece below, Charles Paul Freund makes an interesting point that has struck me ever since I first saw "The Battle of Algiers" three decades ago. The character of Colonel Mathieu, the leader of the French counter-terrorist campaign in Algiers, "is by far the best-realized character in the film; his is the only role filled by a professional actor." It so happens that the same was true for a later film that Pontecorvo made about revolution and counter-revolution, "Queimada" (released in the US, apparently somewhat truncated, as "Burn"). The most fully realized character, even more central to the film than Mathieu in "The Battle of Algiers," was the counter-revolutionary figure Walker (played by none other than Marlon Brando).

P.P.P.S.  Pontecorvo's movie is based in part on a book by Saadi Yacef, who participated in the actual battle of Algiers as an FLN revolutionary. Yacef helped produce the film and acted in it, playing a character roughly modeled on himself. A 2004 interview with Yacef is also worth reading:  “I killed people. I did it for my country”

Posted Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2003, at 4:59 PM PTThe Pentagon's Film Festival
A Primer for The Battle of Algiers.
By Charles Paul Freund

A column in the Washington Post reported yesterday that the Pentagon's special operations chiefs have decided to screen The Battle of Algiers, Gillo Pontecorvo's 1965 classic film of urban terrorist insurgency, for Pentagon employees on Aug. 27. The decision to show Algiers, David Ignatius writes, is "one hopeful sign that the military is thinking creatively and unconventionally about Iraq." He even quotes from a Pentagon flier about the movie:
How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas. ... Children shoot soldiers at point blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film.
It's welcome news that the military is thinking creatively about the American role in Iraq, but the lessons and pleasures of The Battle of Algiers are a lot more ambiguous than this Pentagon blurb implies. To praise the film for its strategic insights is to buy into the 1960s revolutionary mystique that it celebrates; it is the collapse of that very mystique that has contributed to the film's current obscurity and made screenings "rare."
Even so, The Battle of Algiers remains a fascinating artifact of its time. But when the film came out, viewers required a lot of context to understand it properly. Here's a primer about this famous and controversial film, and about how the ever-shifting moral of its story relates to the Battle of Baghdad.
What is The Battle of Algiers?
The Battle of Algiers was the premier political film of the 1960s. It was studied by the campus left for its lessons in revolutionary-cell organization and was obligatory viewing for Black Panthers.
The first part of the film depicts the campaign of terror launched by the National Liberation Front (FLN, called "the organization" in the film) against French colonial rule in 1956.* The story is built around a criminal-turned-revolutionary known as Ali La Pointe, and it details his political epiphany and his terrorist career. The movie's second half concerns the reaction by the French military, which consists primarily of a campaign of torture and murder, and focuses on the leader in charge of that campaign, "Col. Mathieu." Mathieu is by far the best-realized character in the film; his is the only role filled by a professional actor.
From its first release, the film was extremely controversial: When the film was finally shown in France, theaters were bombed. In Italy, viewers were attacked.
Is the movie accurate?
Within broad limits. Ali was indeed the hero of the Casbah, the Muslim section of Algiers; as the film suggests, his death marked the end of the real battle for the city. The French did torture and murder their way to tactical victory. Mathieu, for his part, is based mostly on the real-life Gen. Jacques Massu, who devised the counterterrorist strategy. Many sequences are meticulously accurate, such as the famous one referred to by the Pentagon in its flier, in which Algerian women put on Western clothes and makeup and then plant bombs at civilian French targets. Unsurprisingly, many characters are composites, and numerous details are fudged, made up, or altered. Among them is Ali's powerful last line in the film, directed at the French: "I do not negotiate with them." The line is actually appropriated from a speech by then-Interior Minister Francois Mitterand, who had directed it at the insurgents.
Is there anything important that the film leaves out?
The film leaves out the insurrection that was taking place in the rest of Algeria, which makes it impossible for viewers to judge how the FLN finally succeeded in driving out the French, much less what was wrong with French military strategy. (Even now, some blame defeat not on the military but on Charles de Gaulle.) The movie also omits the struggle between the FLN and other anti-French factions for control of the revolution. It took an Algerian filmmaker, not a European, to tell the story of insurgents killing each other (Okacha Touita's 1982 film, The Sacrificed).
Instead of offering an explanation for the ultimate triumph of the FLN, Pontecorvo offers a poetic picture of Algeria's revolutionary resilience. "Even though some rivers seem to disappear," he once told an interviewer, "they run underground instead and always reach the sea." That's an appealing metaphor, but it's neither politically nor militarily instructive.
What does any of this have to do with Baghdad?
Terror. The Mideast learned the efficacy of insurgent terror from Algeria. The PLO, Hamas, and other groups are indebted to the Algerian strategy of so-called "people's war." Its lessons are now apparent in Iraq, too. Yet the film treats the Algiers terror campaign as a failure: Its later bombings and shootings are made to appear increasingly desperate and strategically pointless. "Wars aren't won with terrorism," says one key revolutionary. "Neither wars nor revolutions." But that depends at least in part on how the other side reacts to terror, whether the other side is France in Algeria or the United States in Iraq. Wars may not be won with terror, but they can be lost by reacting ineffectively to it.
This is where The Battle of Algiers is potentially most valuable and most dangerous as a point of comparison for the U.S. military. While The Battle of Algiers has next to nothing to say about overall French strategy in Algeria, its most obvious military lesson—that torture is an efficient countermeasure to terror—is a dangerous one in this particular instance. Aside from its moral horror, torture may not even elicit accurate information, though the film seems to suggest it is foolproof.
The French military view of torture is articulated by Col. Mathieu in the course of a series of exchanges with French journalists. As reports of torture spread, the issue becomes a scandal in France. Mathieu, however, is unwavering in defense of the practice: To him it is a military necessity. Informed that Jean-Paul Sartre is condemning French tactics, for example, Mathieu responds with a question that would warm Ann Coulter's heart: "Why are the liberals always on the other side?" [JW: That rendering of Mathieu's line is approximate.]
At one point Mathieu challenges the hostile French reporters with a question of his own: "Should France remain in Algeria? If you answer 'yes,' you must accept all the necessary consequences." Mathieu might as well be addressing the American military and the American public. Is the United States to remain in the Middle East? If so, what are the "necessary consequences"? Do they include working with former members of the Baathist secret police, as recent news stories have suggested? Do they include the night-time invasion of Iraqi homes and the inevitable shooting of innocent civilians?
To raise such issues is not necessarily to condemn the continued presence of troops in Iraq; there would be disastrous "necessary consequences" to an American withdrawal, too. But moral compromise, according to the film, was inherent in France's position in Algeria. The United States is not France, Iraq is not Algeria, and whatever the sources of resistance in Iraq, none is the equivalent of the FLN. But to listen to Mathieu is nevertheless to be challenged on whether moral compromise is also inherent in the American role in Iraq.
Moral compromise, finally, was also inherent in the FLN's campaign, and not only as a result of terror. Although the FLN was a group of secular revolutionaries, it frequently tried to rouse Algerians with Islamic rhetoric, mostly to appropriate the anti-French movement led by Algerian clerics for decades. And yet upon taking power, the FLN betrayed the promises they'd implicitly made to Muslims. (The Islamists engaged in the current civil war in the country represent a different, Wahhabized strain of Islam.)
So who ultimately won the Battle of Algiers?
No one. The French won the battle, but in 1962 they lost the war. French soldiers, most of whom hated the idea of torture, were tainted by the association. Algerians got rid of the French but in their place got an authoritarian regime that, before it fell, was itself guilty of torture. In the meantime, French interests maintained substantial control of the nation's resources. The revolutionary left got another regime that lost the support of a culturally suffocated and economically deprived populace. The triumphant FLN was even at war with itself; in 1965 one faction surrounded another with tanks and ousted it from power.* The people of the capital literally thought another scene was being shot for The Battle of Algiers.
Ultimately, the film evades answering its own moral challenge. It justifies its support of FLN terrorist murder over French torture by rewriting history. According to the film, terror was futile; it didn't work. What finally drove France out, it suggests, was a spontaneous explosion of popular resistance. That scenario, however, is a fantasy. What drove France out was sustained and bloody insurrection.
As a portrait of revolution and of a war of ideas, The Battle of Algiers suggests that the French went wrong by denying they were foreigners; they treated Algeria as an extension of France. At least one lesson for the United States seems obvious: A liberal Iraqi order is going to have to develop within Iraqi terms, and only the Iraqis themselves can establish those terms.
Correction, Aug. 28, 2003: This article originally stated that the first part of The Battle of Algiers was set in 1954. In fact it was in 1956. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
Correction, Aug. 28, 2003: The article also noted that one faction of the FLN had ousted another in 1967; in fact the ousting occurred in 1965. (Return to the corrected sentence.)


Return to article
Interestingly, the man who was in charge of torture in Algiers, Gen. Paul Aussaresses, has recently published his immensely controversial memoirs (The Battle of the Casbah), and in that he offers alternative versions of several of the film's events. The most astonishing claim he makes concerns the betrayal of Ali La Pointe. Ali, writes Aussaresses, was betrayed by a comrade, Saadi Yacef. As it happens, Saadi is in the film; he plays Ali's FLN mentor. Moreover, Saadi was the film's Algerian co-producer. Aussaresses offers no evidence for his claim, and Saadi has dismissed the charge.
Charles Paul Freund is a senior editor at Reason magazine. He writes regularly for Beirut's Daily Star about cultural issues in the Middle East.

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Posted Friday, Jan. 2, 2004, at 10:57 AM PT

Guerrillas in the Mist
Why the war in Iraq is nothing like The Battle of Algiers.
By Christopher Hitchens

Having been screened by the special operations department of the Pentagon last August (see Charles Paul Freund's piece in Slate), The Battle of Algiers is now scheduled for a run at the New York Film Forum. Unless I am wrong, this event will lead to a torrent of pseudo-knowing piffle from the armchair guerrillas (well, there ought to be a word for this group). I myself cherished the dream of being something more than an armchair revolutionary when I first saw this electrifying movie. It was at a volunteer work-camp for internationalists, in Cuba in the summer of 1968. Che Guevara had only been dead for a few months, the Tet rising in Vietnam was still a fresh and vivid memory, and in Portuguese Africa the revolution was on the upswing. I went to the screening not knowing what to expect and was so mesmerized that when it was over I sat there until they showed it again. I was astounded to discover, sometime later on, that Gillo Pontecorvo had employed no documentary footage in the shooting of the film: It looked and felt like revolutionary reality projected straight onto the screen.
When I next saw it, in Bleecker Street in the Village in the early 1970s, it didn't have quite the same shattering effect. Moreover, in the audience (as in that Cuban camp, as I later found out) there were some idiots who fancied the idea of trying "urban guerrilla" warfare inside the West itself. The film had a potently toxic effect on Black Panthers, Weathermen, Baader-Meinhof, and Red Brigade types. All that needs to be said about that "moment" of the Left is that its practitioners ended up dead or in prison, having advanced the cause of humanity by not one millimeter.
Those making a facile comparison between the Algerian revolution depicted in the film and today's Iraq draw an equally flawed analogy. Let me mention just the most salient differences.
1) Algeria in 1956—the "real time" date of the film—was not just a colony of France. It was a department of metropolitan France. The slogan of the French Right was Algérie Française. A huge population of French settlers lived in the country, mainly concentrated in the coastal towns. The French had exploited and misgoverned this province for more than a century and were seeking to retain it as an exclusive possession.
2) In 1956, the era of French and British rule in the Middle East had already in effect come to an end. With the refusal by President Eisenhower to countenance the Anglo-French-Israeli attack on Egypt at Suez in November of that year, the death-knell of European colonialism had struck. There was no military tactic that could have exempted a near-bankrupt France from this verdict. General Massu in Algiers could have won any military victory he liked and it would have changed nothing. Frenchmen as conservative as Charles de Gaulle and Raymond Aron were swift to recognize this state of affairs.
Today, it is Arab nationalism that is in crisis, while the political and economic and military power of the United States is virtually unchallengeable. But the comparison of historical context, while decisive, is not the only way in which the Iraq analogy collapses. The French could not claim to have removed a tyrannical and detested leader. They could not accuse the Algerian nationalists of sponsoring international terrorism (indeed, they blamed Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt for fomenting the FLN in Algiers itself). They could not make any case that Algerian nationalism would violate the Non-Proliferation Treaty or even threaten to do so. Thus, French conscripts—not volunteers—and Algerian rebels were sacrificed for no cause except the lost and futile one of French reaction. The right-wing generals of the Algeria campaign, and some of the extreme settlers, actually did conduct an urban guerrilla rearguard action of their own, in Paris as well as Algeria, and did try to bring off a military coup against de Gaulle, but they had been defeated and isolated by 1968.
I would challenge anybody to find a single intelligent point of comparison between any of these events and the present state of affairs in Iraq. The only similarity that strikes the eye, in point of guerrilla warfare, is that the toughest and most authentic guerrilla army in Iraq—the Kurdish peshmerga—is fighting very effectively on the coalition side. Not even the wildest propaganda claims of the Baathist and jihadist sympathizers allege that the tactics of General Massu are being employed by General Abizaid or General Sanchez: [Unfortunately, this is no longer quite so straightforward--JW] Newspaper and political party offices are being opened not closed, and just last month the Saddam ban on Iraqi pilgrims making the hajj to Mecca was rescinded.
If one wants to make a serious Algerian analogy, however, there are far more recent events on which to base a comparison. During the 1990s a very bitter war was fought, in the casbah of Algiers and Oran as well as in the countryside, between the FLN (now an extremely shabby ruling party) and the forces of Islamic jihad. A very great number of people were slaughtered in this war, which featured torture and assassination and terror of every description. I have seen estimates of deaths that exceed 150,000. The FLN eventually won the war with the backing of three forces: the Algerian army, the secularized urban middle class, and the Berbers or Kabyles who make up one of the Arab world's largest non-Arab minorities. It wasn't very pretty, and it involved the use of some repulsive measures, but if Algeria had fallen to the fundamentalists the bloodbath would have been infinitely worse and the society would have been retarded almost to the level of Afghanistan. Millions of people would have left or tried to leave, creating a refugee crisis in France and perhaps giving M. Jean-Marie Le Pen (a brutish and boastful veteran of the first Algerian war) an even better shot at the presidency than he managed in his upset first-round triumph in 2002. Fascism would have been the all-round winner.
That "Battle of Algiers," not Pontecorvo's outdated masterpiece, is replete with examples and parallels that ought to be of great interest and relevance to ourselves. Can an Arab and Muslim state with a large non-Arab minority and many confessional differences defeat the challenge of a totalitarian and medieval ideology? In this outcome, we and our Arab and Kurdish friends have a stake, whereas in the battles of the past (as of the present) one can only applaud the humiliation of French unilateralism and neocolonialism, whether it occurs on-screen or off.
Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and a regular contributor to Slate. His most recent book is Love, Poverty and War. He is also the author of A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq and of Blood, Class and Empire.

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New York Times Magazine
November 14, 2004, Sunday

Late Edition - Final , Section 6 , Page 50 , Column 1
The Terrorist as Auteur
By Michael Ignatieff

When you turn on the television news these days, you often see a new kind of home video: hooded men with guns and knives in the background and, in the grainy foreground, figures on their knees begging for their lives. They plead, they weep, they bow their heads and then, more often than not, they die. It has been like this since Daniel Pearl was made to repeat "My father is Jewish. My mother is Jewish. I am Jewish" before being decapitated. Thanks to the news editors, we rarely if ever see the footage to its gruesome conclusion, but the full versions of these films, reproduced on CD's, sell by the thousands in the marketplace in Baghdad. Apparently the executioners wear gloves. They do not want to stain their hands with the blood of infidels.

The Chechen rebels seem to have been the first to film these grotesque parodies of Islamic justice. Now there is a market in such bloody spectacles, with criminal gangs supplying the crucial actors: abducting foreigners in Iraq and selling them to terrorist groups like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's Tawhid and Jihad. Terrorists have been quick to understand that the camera has the power to frame a single atrocity and turn it into an image that sends shivers down the spine of an entire planet. This gives them a vital new weapon. Before Iraq, there had been plenty of vicious insurgencies -- in Algeria against the French, in Kenya against the British, in Vietnam against the Americans -- but none of them used the camera as an instrument of terror. Kidnapping had been the weapon of choice for armed groups in Lebanon since the 1970's. But they didn't put their captives on the nightly news.
We now have the terrorist as film director. One man taken hostage recently in Iraq described, once released, how carefully his own appearance on video was staged, with the terrorists animatedly framing the shot: where the guns would point, what the backdrop should be, where he should kneel, what he should be scripted to say.
Using video cameras as a weapon may be new, but modern terrorists have always sought to exploit the power of images. The greatest film ever made about terrorism -- Gillo Pontecorvo's "Battle of Algiers" (1965) -- was actually shot at the instigation of a terrorist. Saadi Yacef, the leader of the insurgent cell in the Algiers Casbah that the French crushed in 1957, survived capture and, after Algerian independence, approached Pontecorvo to make a film, based on his own life story. Yacef helped to produce the film and actually played himself on-screen. Had it been up to Yacef, the result would have been pure propaganda. Pontecorvo held out for a deeper vision, and the result is a masterpiece, at once a justification for acts of terror and an unsparing account of terror's cost, including to the cause it serves.
Yacef was only the first impresario of terror. After him came Lutiff Afif, or Issa, as he was known, leader of the gang that captured Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972. He strutted around in his shades and broad-brimmed hat, using the world's television cameras to orchestrate a spectacle of horror that forced the entire world to attend to the Palestinian cause. By the time he died in a botched fusillade at a German airport, death held no terrors. He had scored a propaganda triumph.
Besides the terrorist as impresario, let us remember that we also have the torturer as video artist. The Abu Ghraib pictures were never just for private use. Some were meant as a spur to other torturers. And some were supposed to be shown to other prisoners to warn them what awaited if they did not cooperate. The digital image -- moving or still -- has become an instrument of coercive interrogation.
In Iraq, imagery has replaced argument; indeed, atrocity footage has become its own argument. One horrendous picture seems not just to follow the other but also to justify it. From Abu Ghraib to decapitation footage and back again, we the audience are caught in a loop: one atrocity begetting another in a darkening vortex, without end.
The old questions about the war in Iraq -- Was it legal? Was it necessary? Was it done as a last resort? -- now seem beside the point. The issue now is whether there is any way out of the vortex itself, mutually reinforcing barbarism that ends . . . where?
Thinking about this is hard. We know we are trapped in a vortex, but we do not even understand the churn that is dragging us down. All we see clearly is our own coarsening complicity. TV news editors still screen the worst moments out, but over the past 25 years, they have spared us less and less: now we see actual human beings begging for their lives. This is terrorism as pornography, and it acts like pornography: at first making audiences feel curious and aroused, despite themselves, then ashamed, possibly degraded and finally, perhaps, just indifferent. The audience for this vileness is global. A Dutchman who runs a violent and sexually explicit Web site that posts beheadings notes, in his inimitable words, that "during times of tragic events like beheadings," his site, which usually gets 200,000 visitors a day, gets up to 750,000 hits.
The degrading impact of these images may not be the most important issue. A more relevant question is how we think politically about this new kind of reality show. In marketing terms, the videos are recruitment posters for the Iraqi insurrection. A gang's videos announce that it sets the standard in barbarity, and this both pulls in recruits and encourages the capture of victims.
The videos also announce that in an occupied country there are no innocent foreigners. The French victims may have thought they were innocent because they believed their nation's policy had been innocent; the Italian victims may have thought they were innocent because they were simply humanitarians who had been against the war all along. Muslim victims might well have believed they were innocent because they were Muslims. One of the most recent victims -- Margaret Hassan, country director for CARE International -- had a remarkably strong claim to innocence. Her husband is an Iraqi, and she has lived in the country for 30 years, building clinics, setting up a spinal-injuries unit. Patients in her own clinics got into their wheelchairs and went into the streets with banners in Arabic calling for her release. If anyone is entitled to what the Geneva Conventions call "civilian immunity," it is Margaret Hassan. But her innocence was the point of her kidnapping. Her video was a bomb hurled at our hope that it is possible for foreigners to do good things in Iraq. Given that Margaret Hassan is married to an Iraqi, the video of her begging for her life also warned Iraqis tempted to work with decent people like her: no one associated with an infidel is innocent, either.
The rituals of humiliation these videos enact -- some captives are shown in cages, others are chained, still others are depicted wearing the same orange jump suits worn by detainees at Guantanamo -- are intended to gratify that portion of the Arab audience raised on the rhetoric of Muslim humiliation. This propaganda reframes a millennium of complex interaction between the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds as a long litany of shame, inflicted first by the Crusaders, then by the French and British imperialists and finally by the Israelis and their American paymasters. The snuff video is payback. The only way to end humiliation, these videos say, is to inflict it upon someone else. This message plays well in the bazaars of Baghdad.

You might hesitate to say that humiliation justifies decapitation, but a lot of people think it explains it. In "One Day in September," a documentary that tracked down the last surviving member of the Palestinian gang that seized Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, the decrepit terrorist wanted us to understand that the act grew out of his humiliating childhood in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon. Grim footage of refugee life was duly shown. But what exactly is being explained here? Such footage might explain why he joined up, but does it help us understand why he was able to stand and watch while an Israeli athlete, wounded in the shootout, slowly bled to death on the floor? Does it explain why, with all his comrades dead, and the Palestinian cause advanced not one iota toward statehood, the aging terrorist says that he would do Munich all over again? Apparently, the only thing humiliation actually justifies is never having to say you are sorry.

The new videos of retributive humiliation and vengeful, purifying executions take "justification" to a new level. They are fundamentally in the business of handing out entitlements, by lowering the natural human thresholds of repugnance. See what we have done, the hooded figures seem to say: we have beheaded someone on television. Now see what you can do. These videos use the humiliation of the infidel to manufacture a sense of entitlement. After seeing one of these videos, a young Iraqi can say to himself: truly, everything is permitted.
At this point, if you are still reading, you may have had enough. Why, you may be thinking, do we have to understand any of this? Why can't we just call acts by their proper names and conduct ourselves accordingly? The name for this is evil.
Many people bridle at this word and think it inhibits understanding the deeper grievances that fuel resentment and violence. They are right in that it would help us if we understood the deep roots of Muslim humiliation, and understanding is unlikely if we only feel like condemning. But it is worth holding the line that separates understanding from justification, the line that divides understanding from explanation. That is the work that the word "evil" does. It holds the line.
In any event, full understanding is God's work alone. It's just too hard -- and in some sense not important -- to understand why one human being can actually take a knife to another person's throat and lift off his head. All you can say is that human beings do this, always have, always will. As Shakespeare had one of his characters say, murder is man's work.
The question we can answer is why beheading -- and all the other instruments in a terrorist's armory, like driving bomb-laden cars into Iraqis lining up for jobs as policemen -- makes political sense. And it does.
An accomplished terrorist -- al-Zarqawi is undoubtedly one -- understands us better than we seem to understand him. He knows that the only chance of forcing an American withdrawal lies in swaying the political will of an electorate that, already divided and unwilling, has sent its sons and daughters there. This is where his images become a weapon of war, a way to test and possibly shatter American will. He is counting on our moral disgust and on the sense of futility that follows disgust. Moral disgust is the first crucial step toward cracking the will to continue the fight.

Now let's not be sentimental about American virtue or scruple. Democracies can be just as ruthless as authoritarian societies, and Americans haven't been angels in the war on terror, as the images from Abu Ghraib so plainly show. But the willingness of American democracy to commit atrocity in its defense is limited by moral repugnance, rooted in two centuries of free institutions. This capacity for repugnance sustained the popular protest that eventually took us out of Vietnam. Al-Zarqawi is a cynic about these matters: the truths we hold to be self-evident are the ones he hopes to turn against us. He thinks that we would rather come home than fight evil. Are we truly willing to descend into the vortex to beat him? He has bet that we are not.
But his calculation is that either way, he cannot lose. If we remain, he has also bet -- and Abu Ghraib confirms how perceptive he was -- that we will help him drive us into ignominious defeat by becoming as barbarous as he is. He is trailing the videos as an ultimate kind of moral temptation, an ethical trap into which he is hoping we will fall. Everything is permitted, he is saying. If you wish to beat me, you will have to join me. Every terrorist hopes, ultimately, that his opponent will become his brother in infamy. If we succumb to this temptation, he will have won. He has, however, forgotten that the choice always remains ours, not his. Michael Ignatieff is the author of ''The Lesser Evil'' and director of the Carr Center at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.