Cultural Revolutions

The Mindset of Terrorists

Since September 11, I have spent a great deal of time in interviews with all sorts of media people, who range from the well informed to the abysmally ignorant. One question that occurs with deadly predictability concerns the mindset of the terrorists: Just what kind of warped alien creature could possibly crash a plane into the World Trade Center? And, more broadly, what on earth do they hope to achieve by this? Don't they know they can never defeat the United States? As I go through the same explanations time and again, I often wish that there were a handy Guide to Terrorism to which I could refer them—a comprehensive Cliffs Notes. And then it occurs to me that such a thing does exist. Rather than a thousand television chat programs on terrorism, in which experts like myself float their half-baked nostrums, it would be much more useful for American television networks to show just one film—ideally every night for a month or so, until the whole nation can lip-synch the lines. It really is that crucial: When someone has seen and understood the 1966 film The Battle of Algiers, they have acquired an expertise in matters of terrorism and counterterrorism far superior to that of virtually all media pundits.

The Battle of Algiers is set in 1957, amidst the anti-colonial struggle waged by the Algerian people against their French masters from 1954 to 1962. Though the war began as a rural...

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