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Albert Camus

Réflexions sur le terrorisme

Albert Camus:
Réflexions sur le terrorisme.
Textes choisis et introduits par Jacqueline Lévi-Valensi, commentés par Antoine Garapon et Denis Salas.
Paris: Nicolas Philippe, 2002.
264 pages
ISBN 2-7488-0033-8
book cover
Editions Nicolas Philippe:
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»Does the end justify the means? That is possible. But what will justify the end? To that question, which historical thought leaves pending, rebellion replies: the means.«

Albert Camus

The biography of Albert Camus, born in 1913 as Pieds Noirs (a white Frenchman, living in colonial, French North Africa) in Algiers, editor of the resistance magazine Combat and, until his death, impeded peacemaker in the Algerian war of the French people, shows him as someone who knows what he is speaking of when talking about terrorism. During the time of France's German occupation he could have certainly been executed for being a terrorist by the Nazis. Simultaneously, as a member of the Pieds Noirs, he was, at least theoretically, also a target for the Front de la Liberation Nationale (FLN), which was fighting for Algeria's independence by means of terror. His distinctive view, that the end under no circumstances justifies the means, was formed and consolidated early on. Like Camus himself phrased it in The Rebel: »Does the end justify the means? That is possible. But what will justify the end? To that question, which historical thought leaves pending, rebellion replies: the means.« (124)

Réflexions sur le terrorisme is then the title of an annotated collection of texts and excerpts from the oeuvre of the Nobel Prize Laureate, who died in 1960. His position toward terrorism is most clearly expressed in the play The Just, in which historic figures – the Russian revolutionaries of 1905 – have discussions that must be similar to those having taken place between Jean-Paul Sartre and Camus himself. Kaliajew has the assignment to assault an important aristocrat. When seeing that two children are accompanying the aristocrat in the carriage, Kaliajew abandons the assassination attempt and has to justify his decision to his comrades. Particularly the character of Fjodorow clearly takes on traits of Sartre, e.g. when noting that the death of the two children stands juxtaposed to the death of millions of others. The preface to Frantz Fanon's book The Wretched of the Earth, written by Sartre and published in 1961 – that is, after Camus's death –, can be understood as response to Réflexions sur le terrorisme. For the colonised there was only »one duty to be done, one end to achieve: to thrust out colonialism by every means in their power« (Harmondsworth 1967, 18).

The play The Just forms the core of Réflexions sur le terrorisme and it is very enlightening to see how Camus wants to make his ethical demands heard in the world of terrorism and counter-terrorism of the Algerian war and sounds, despite numerous similar situations existing today, hopelessly antiquated. He recommends both parties to think about terrorism, telling terrorists to consider their choice of targets and the possibility of actually legitimate violence. Similarly, he advises the affected states to reflect on the reasons for the readiness to violence. There is a timeless untimeliness in Camus's thought, as in the times of necessity admonishing voices are quickly called traitors or henchmen of terrorism or repression.

Precisely in this untimeliness lies the strength of the selection of texts and the particular interest to once again recall Camus's perspectives. Burning questions, such as how to think a legitimate violence of the repressed and which ethical boundaries must not be crossed by state powers in the fight against terrorism, are answered at least in theory. Violence, on the one hand, is inevitable for Camus, on the other hand, it also cannot be justified, resulting in the special status of the exception. The exception is the only thing to make violence legitimate but this legitimacy does not absolve the perpetrator from his ethical responsibility. This particular concept of moral responsibility, together with the possibility to be doing the right thing and nonetheless, or precisely because of that, to be guilty, is a serious challenge for today's moral theory. The only generally valid ethical entity is, for Camus, the innocent victim, for whom it is then worth fighting for, though not at the cost of other innocent individuals.

Georg Maißer

Translation from the German by Marlies Gabriele Prinzl.

polylog: Forum for Intercultural Philosophy 5 (2004).
Online: http://lit.polylog.org/5/scamg-en.htm
ISSN 1616-2943
Author: Georg Maißer, Vienna (Austria)
© 2004 Author & polylog e.V.
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