Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A momentous oppurtunity for change

Here, right now, as I type these words, is an incredibly opportune moment for us to witness the change that we have been hearing from Barack Obama. For someone who came to power on the promise that he is going to bring change to Washington politics and reverse the damages and disastrous policies followed by the Bush Administration, he could not have bargained for a better time to show the world what he was sincere. As Israeli shells pound the Gaza strip is what is unquestionably an obscene display of excessive force against a decidedly weak opponent, we have a situation that calls for unreserved and strong condemnation.

Most importantly, everyone is waiting for the signal from America. Indeed, there are commentators arguing that this whole episode was a demonstration to the incoming President about how Israel is going to deal with this longstanding dispute. And we are still waiting for a comment..... No, Mr. Obama, dodging questions by saying that there is only one President at a time is not good enough, and that is certainly not what people in the world expected to hear. You can say more, even if you cannot do much, like the strong words you chose when responding to the congratulations from Mr. Ahmadinejad. Evidently there is only one person running the White House and we all know that the President in waiting cannot order an intervention, but a less ambiguous reaction would have gone a long way in changing the face of geo-politics in the Middle East in months to come.

And yet, nothing is coming from the man who stood for change. I understand how entangled American interests are in the special US-Israel relationship and I am not naive enough to have believed that the new President would supply tanks and ammunition to Palestine on arrival, but there was definitely a hope for a relatively more even-handed approach to the resolution of conflict. And nothing, not even the financial mess, could have presented a golden opportunity such as this to ascertain Mr. Obama's real intention of bringing change and improving the image and global standing of America.

And, we are still waiting....

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Society and human behavior

I am a vegetarian. I also happen to be raised a vegetarian. Up until now, I have maintained a certain distaste and even disgust for the sight and smell of meat. But I have also come to realize that vegetarianism is significant from an ethical point of view too. My primary concern here is animal welfare since there is ample evidence to believe that sentient beings are put through some of the most horrifying conditions one can imagine before being slaughtered.

I am often shocked by how people don't seem to care too much about this at all. How is it possible they don't realize the inhuman treatment that animals are subjected to for the trivial benefit of satisfying their palate? I find their flippant attitude inexplicable, especially so when is many cultures, cruelty to dogs would be condemned in the sharpest way possible (and can even be punishable). However, I am not going to be discussing the ethics of vegetarianism here, even though I have several opinions on the issue. Maybe, I can post it sometime later. Besides, there other sites that discuss this including Wikipedia. No, here I am going to use this fact as a starting point to launch into a more general argument that, when a certain behavior is acceptable in society, however despicable it may be, there will be many people who would not refrain from indulging in the same.

I was completely shocked when I learned about how the Red Army marched into Germany when the tide of the war swung in the favor of the Allies, and then raped and molested all the women they could find. They ravaged and destroyed the towns and did not even spare some of the 'liberated' death camp prisoners. I was equally taken aback when I heard about the anti-Sikh riots in northern India by Hindu extremists in the aftermath of the assassination of Indira Gandhi. That rioters just picked on innocent Sikh men, dragged them out of their homes, and brutally attacked and murdered them was something I could not believe. Maybe it was my sheltered childhood, but the fact that normal people were capable of such barbarism went beyond my comprehension of humanity.

Of course, I have grown up now and am aware that these incidents are far from being isolated cases of violent atrocities. War crimes follow virtually instance of a warfare or regional strife, and this has been the situation throughout recorded history. However appalling Abu Graib or Guantanamo Bay may be, it is not particularly unique, even for the US Army (though this is no justification for their continued existence). It is not just horrendous acts perpetrated by armies and other combat groups that are guaranteed presence in all of human history, but so are other forms of injustices and cruelty entrenched in wider society during better times of peace and prosperity.. Slavery, colonialism and imperialism, racism, oppression of women, casteism, trafficking are all examples of human behavior, that viewed from the perspective of modern "civilized" world, appears as wholly deplorable. And yet, they were acceptable at one point. Widespread, almost unopposed acceptability has existed/still exists with regard to the practice of just these same human indignities in societies. Today, in most parts of the Western world, slavery would be perceived as completely abhorrent, but less than 300 years ago, there were several educated, intelligent and otherwise decent human beings who participated in the practice and held various flawed beliefs to justify it. Some of the leading philosophers and thinkers in the generations past have lent their credence to the idea that Africans are fundamentally inferior and hence deserve the treatment they get.

A similar justification was made, based on the ideology of "White Man's burden", for conquering and ruling other nations while impoverishing and depriving them of their resources. Not many in the oppressive community/country back then expressed a tenth of disgust that the majority would now do,looking at the past. How is this possible? Obviously, there is no inherent change in human beings over a few hundred years. There is also no reason to believe that each generation is born with certain unique inherent traits. In other words, if the same child were to be hypothetically transported across time to a different era, the whole outlook that he/she develops would be spectacularly divergent from what it is now. But, if such is the case, would it not be reasonable to argue that this is nothing more than a generalized version of "cultural relativism". Clearly, that is not how people understand it today, otherwise we would be hearing a lot more along the lines of "Who are we to judge what someone did in a different period when public morality was so different?".Much like when we hear a lady is being stoned to death for alleged adultery in Iran, few would take the stand that it is all fair and reasonable from their(Iran's) cultural standpoint. No, we believe, correctly or incorrectly, that these are wrongs and must never happen anywhere or anytime. Once we claim such absolutes in ethical judgments, we need to go back and revise our opinions on why so many participated in and encouraged what was so obviously WRONG. The answer, according to me, is simply that it was acceptable in society then whereas it isn't so anymore now.That is the sad truth of the world we live in:we are capable of doing just about anything so long as it is acceptable in society. So much for peoples' righteous moral outrage! Alter this argument a little and replace society by a group or institution, and we can explain everything from the Holocaust to human-rights violations in North Korea. The group is the one that has authority and power - the men in charge of implementing official policy of torture and abuse.

A microcosm of the same phenomena can be witnessed in the whole ragging issue in colleges across India. Students, barely past their teens, mostly growing up in regular middle-class families and seemingly introverted, somehow get transformed to something quite vicious and sadistic. The abuses inflicted on the freshmen in certain colleges, can take many forms, including repeated beatings and sexual humiliation. It is interesting though that in these cases, those in the vicinity witnessing the initiation ritual, see nothing odd about two people simulating sodomy. This is particularly striking when contrasted with the overall attitude of the broader Indian society when it comes to similar issues. How come those nurtured in a closed environment like this, in less than a year, turned to doing something that is not only in poor taste, but is also outright illegal?
It is equally interesting to note that the same people who were in the thicket of organizing the ragging drill would not have much of courage to do anything even a little daring in an environment where such behavior would not be acceptable. In other words, timid individuals who seem incapable of standing up and being bold can turn into monsters when they know that their actions would be regarded as normal, however disgusting these actions may be in a more standard setting.

My hypothesis was strengthened when I learned about some famous experiments that were carried out to test similar potential possibilities in normal people. Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram devised a famous test where participants were supposed to administer electric shocks to a "victim" whenever he/she answered a question wrong. The order to do so was to be provided by a a stern authority figure who sat in the same room as the participant. And with every wrong answer, the voltage was incremented. The results were astonishing -many of the participants triggered shocks greater than 200V and only one participant refused to do so beyond the 300V threshold. 65% of the participants were willing to go up to 450V although many of them expressed reservations and were uncomfortable to do so. Interestingly, this was three months before the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi operative considered to be the architect of the Holocaust. Basically, the experimenters wanted to determine if ordinary Americans were capable of doing what the Nazis had done. (By the way, the analysis of Eichmann's personality is also noteworthy.)

Ten years later, an even more disturbing psychological experiment was carried out. The Stanford Prison Experiment involved selecting a bunch of undergraduate students, randomly assigning them "prisoner" and "guard" roles that they are supposed to enact for a period of 14 days in a real prison. The whole arrangement was setup in a manner that would simulate a real prison environment as accurately as possible: from the baton that the "guards" carried around to the chains tied to the ankles of "prisoners". The lead experimenter Professor Philip Zimbardo was himself playing the prison superintendent. The experiment had to be shut down in 6 days because the whole situation got out of hand very soon. Guards began to beat the prisoners, denied them food, and routinely humiliated them. Some of the prisoners were thrown into solitary confinement. The prisoners are said to have been psychologically traumatized at the end, having undergone serious stress during the progress of the experiment. To be fair, the experiment was criticized by many (though not criticisms are convincing) and the BBC conducted its own Prison Study in 2002 and the results this time were definitely less dramatic than SPE. The difference seems to lie in the fact that in the conditions were less harsh and hostile in the BBC commissioned study than in the SPE. That is not to say it did not have any incident involving tyranny and abuse of power. My own interpretation is that the inferences that can be drawn from all these psychological experiments are in line with my overall opinion of human nature and behavior.

When we go by this hypothesis, we are able to better understand various barbaric events in history and also societal attitudes to and (in some case )participation in various horrors, from mild injustices like denying equal rights to women to applauding brutal Gladiator fights. So long as everyone around feels the same way, it reinforces the idea of normalcy in such behavior and people will engage in them without any compunction. Or, they are unlikely to realize what their actions would be judged harshly in the future or by a society with different norms. Thus every time I hear about some horrible violence somewhere in the world, I am inclined to believe that the perpetrators are living in a place and time where such activities are deemed acceptable . It is a truly disturbing thought indeed.

(i) It is important to remember that most of the experiments that I have described here were not designed to study anything directly related to what I am interested in. Instead, they mostly concerned the willingness of normal people to simply follow instruction in the presence of an authority figure, however much it went against their perception of what is right and what isn't. In their own right, they are quite surprising. The results from the BBC Prison Study are particularly well reasoned out and analyzed. I also do not claim that my conclusions based on these experiments have been obtained in some perfectly-justified purely rational arguments. I just see a strong connection between them and my own hypothesis of human behavior. Also,in no way am I desperate to find evidence-weak or strong- to prove my point. Far from it, I actually wish I could be proved wrong.

(ii)Same goes for various incidents I have highlighted. It is certainly possible that the underlying motivation to commit violent crimes may been have vastly different in these cases.
(iii) Irrespective of the idea you may get away with on reading this, it was by no means written to drive home the imperative for converting to vegetarianism.
I cannot however deny that I feel the same logic applies to the whole issue of vegetarianism though.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Some facts

The events that have been unfolding in the aftermath of the horrible attacks in Bombay are quite unprecedented. Public discontent over perceived lack of adequate security provided by the government has lead to widespread protests , condemnation of those in power, and a great sense of betrayal and disillusionment. As we speak the uproar is raging in several places, through different mediums and channels and at various levels. Both the volume and extent of involvement by the public surpasses any response we have seen so far in earlier tragedies.

No doubt, it was indeed a ghastly series of events and there can be nothing said or done that would make those who have lost a loved one feel better. I will not pretend to understand what they must be going through.

However, not being so close to the disaster should help others look at the attacks in a more objective manner and take note of a few relevant facts and statistics that may be missed during the heat of the debate. Before I go on to list them, I must make it very clear that this is not meant to make the horror of this tragedy, or any of the related developments in international politics since, less significant. The idea here is to put things in their right perspective.
Here we go:
(I) The number of casualties from accidents every year in India is about 100,000. That is close to 300 deaths per day
(II) The number of Indian casualties in the deadly 2004 Tsunami is close to 12,000. I'd be interested to know the status of the rehabilitation efforts.
(III) The number of people of who die every year in Bombay Suburban Railway accidents is more than 3000.
(IV)Since these attacks, there has been a bus explosion in India that has resulted in 63 deaths.
(V) 5 people have been killed so far in terrorist attacks since then. These were associated with the Naxalite movement.
(VI) If you would like to have an idea of the frequency of terrorist attacks worldwide, here is the list for 2008.

Aside from this, it is important to consider the death toll arising from malnutrition in India. Preventable Diseases?

Should we also not care about those innocent citizens who are being arrested and inhumanly assaulted in prisons to elicit a confession?

Amidst the media obsession and sickeningly excess coverage, it is important that we never forget the basic facts involved and lose sense of balance that is so crucial in a precarious situation like this.

Note:Edits made to original post.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Dislike for the mainstream

What is common to the following: McDonalds, Coca Cola, Amheuser Busch, Hollywood blockbusters, MTV music, Windows, Walmart? Compare and contrast this with with their corresponding opposites : craft breweries , independent films, underground music, local farmers produce, Linux. There is a certain general statement that can be made about the former category and the adjectives used to describe them would include poor taste, culture of the masses, dumb, lowest common denominator, shallow, absence of complexity and sophistication. And the latter would be characterized as catering to niche audience, high quality and artistic merit, high culture, greater freedom and independence to experiment. Yes products and culture today fall into distinct classes and two broad ones that can be defined in this respect would be mainstream and well (for lack of a better word) non-mainstream. Ignoring whatever postmodernists have to say about recognizing such a division, we can all confidently say that such a distinction exists, rightly or wrongly, and it has been in our consciousness independent of how much we accept it.
The reason I started this article is because, while searching for the perfect beer to savor, I came across this interesting product from Stone Breweries that immediately drew my attention. It comes in a dark 22-ounce bottle, and has a monster picture in front and goes by the name of "Arrogant Bastard Ale" . Well, with such an aggressive, upfront title, it is naturally bound to make anyone curious. On looking at the details on the bottle closely, you see this warning :

"This is an aggressive beer. You probably won’t like it. It is quite doubtful that you have the taste or sophistication to be able to appreciate an ale of this quality and depth. We would suggest that you stick to safer and more familiar territory — maybe something with a multi-million dollar ad campaign aimed at convincing you it’s made in a little brewery, or one that implies that their tasteless fizzy yellow beer will give you more sex appeal. Perhaps you think multi-million dollar ad campaigns make a beer taste better. Perhaps you’re mouthing your words as you read this."

I couldn't care too much for my taste to be vindicated, but nonetheless I did add this one to my haul that evening.

Anyway, it has got me thinking ever since. And it is not the first time I have come across such elitism for the rare, the strange, the under-appreciated and even the unpopular. Heavy Metal Music is one department where you are likely to encounter some of the most haughty, smug bastards. An ardent fan of the art form, I know the feeling when people say that most music distributed widely has no intensity , no soul and no honest artistic expression. And it is equally true that we are being perpetually bombarded with silly, bloated, Hollywood excesses that we crave for something real and gritty. This particular case becomes an overkill if I introduce those awesomely innovative film industries in India.
A similar statement can be made on any of the other issues I mentioned at the beginning. What all this does to the 'superior',' better-informed, sophisticated' individual is to create a sense of contempt for everything commonplace and enjoyed by the majority in society. This is part reality, part cynicism, part a simple need to nourish the ego but whatever the cause may be it is sort of impossible not to feel that way when you turn on the TV and watch some mind-numbing sitcom that has millions of fans and has raked in profits several times that figure.

Here, I wish to argue that such a generalization about the worthiness of masses is totally wrong. In fact, the more I have broadened my horizons and learned about society, people, politics, history, culture and revolution , the more I have come to the conclusion that the masses are powerful, capable, perceptive and productive. I fact, I wish to completely abolish describing people with derogatory expressions like "masses". Yes, I say this after 47% of people in the most dominant nation-state on earth voted for an imbecile who understood foreign policy to mean geographical proximity.
It is a question of what aspect of civilization we are looking at and and its overall significance on people and society. What I have expressed my dislike for are things of a particular nature, ones whose impact is limited and those whose quality is really not a real life-and-death concern for people. On the other hand, consider the following: science, academia, literature, sports, jurisprudence. On any of these fields, what is regarded as mainstream and popular, and individuals held in high-esteem by the public is nearly coincident with opinions of better-informed people. For instance, Olympics are the biggest and grandest sporting extravaganza in the world but no one will argue that the best of talent is not represented there. In science the areas of research that follow mainstream scientific practices and procedures are always more likely to be accurate and be accepted in the future. In fact, there is a high probability that people not publishing in peer-reviewed journals are likely to be crackpots who make outlandish claims. Isn't it amazing that the mainstream scientific community that gets funded by taxpayer money is so structured that it weeds out fools and idiots and advances only those who observe the scientific method. I know there are several specific counter-examples to this but we need to take a broader look at the history of science and evolution to appreciate how the mainstream is always either (a) correct (b) eventually concedes to holding the wrong idea and corrects itself. In other words, it is far from obvious that the entire discipline was not sabotaged at some stage by crackpots (or creationists) to the point that the public understanding of science and budgetary allocations by government was based on their work. To a lesser degree the same applies to people who are working at NASA or inventing new weapons technology. These are multi-billion dollar projects but they involve the best and the brightest minds.
What about literature? Isn't Shakespeare considered the greatest playwright of all time? And who else but him occupies popular imagination of a literary genius. Majority of literature well-regarded by the critical establishment is also quite well-know to the public. In fact, even when it comes to something like music, no one is going to regard Britney Spears as a precocious wonder. Nor is a Rajnikath film going to win the Palm D'Or anytime soon. Or dethrone Satyajit Ray as a pioneer of creating a real movement in creative film-making in India.
Jurisprudence is another area where the best in the field come together to reach a consensus on contentious issues, resolving ambiguities, establishing precedents and protecting the highest ideals of the system. World history, anthropology, evolutionary biology, linguistics or any other academic research is an attempt to discover the facts of the world and it is usually free of any "mainstream biases" or influenced by political leanings.
But beyond all this, the most important example of the strength and importance of mainstream views and ideas is in the world of politics. Yes, the world inhabited by Bush and Palin.To understand why, stop for a moment and think of all the extremist political ideologies of radical organizations that exist everywhere on the planet. Political groups disguising their Fascist intents in more benign and acceptable expressions of nationalism that always receive support from certain circles that regard mainstream society as a bunch of misguided idiots. National Alliance, a White supremest organization in the United States, was headed by a theoretical physicist. Its members are usually people from of upper-levels of American society -scientists, lawyers, doctors, businessmen. And closer to home, aren't there Hindu intellectuals who have sympathy for RSS assertions of India being a Hindu nation? And this feeling is no less strong amongst plenty of Indian diaspora living in United States. (Why the fuck are they here?). What about the sober Bengali and Keralite communist intellectuals who, if given power, would not just put India out of the international stage but unleash vast destruction and carnage eventually adding another name to the doctrine's stellar gallery of exponents from Stalin to Kim-Jong-il. Imagine what would happen if the larger society had no voice in a system where "intellectuals" and privileged members had more political leverage. Dictatorship, totalitarianism, communism and all such ruthless regimes will take root. However brilliant and level-headed the individuals may be,inordinate power will ultimately result in authoritarian rule that clings on to this power by whatever means it can.Despite its many flaws and contradictions, democracy and equality are the greatest ideals in modern politics and for that to function mainstream opinions has to be given the maximum importance.

Apart from all this rationalizing, I must all also mention that from a standpoint of pure humanity, it is quite dogmatic to regard intelligence,appreciation of art, philosophy or any other attribute as being something so prized that it endows those people with special rights and privileges. Does being a decent human being not count as something admirable if it not accompanied by erudition or cultural sophistication? Besides, I am sure a run-of-the-mill Shah-Rukh-Khan film buff is more likely to be useful in practical situations than stiff, pretentious art-collectors. Or beer connoisseurs!

That brings me back full circle to the Arrogant Bastard Ale. Did I appreciate its depth? Was I worth it? Unfortunately, no. I thought I enjoyed bitter ales but this was so overwhelmingly hopped that it pretty much destroyed every other flavor in the beer. It got a little better towards the end but I had some difficulty in finishing it. Verdict: I am not sophisticated enough.

Movie Review: Battle of Algiers

Successful independence movements invariably involve great turmoil, desperation, individual courage and sacrifice , carnage and even ruthlessness. The Algerian War of Independence which lasted over a period of about 8 years was one of the more violent and bloody efforts that resulted in collapse of the French rule in the country. Occurring nearly a decade after the Second World War, the battle was raged when public attitudes and the political landscape made it difficult for open repression and dominance by colonial powers. Nonetheless, as clearly shown in this incredibly powerful film The Battle of Algiers , the war was savage and brutal. It also manages to capture the spirit of the struggle, the opposing viewpoints,an element of reasonableness amongst key players on both sides involved in the conflict and a collective human drama that unfolds as naturally as it is disturbing.

Released in 1965, only 3 years after freedom was declared for Algeria, this movie does a splendid job of recreating the atmosphere of discontent, violence and a growing sense of nationalism. An Italian production featuring one of the members of the FLN (National Liberation Front) playing a similar role, the film was banned in France for portraying the French policy and tactics in a less than noble way. This fact should not surprise anyone after watching the film. Remarkably even-handed as it is, it does not flinch one bit from chronicling the atrocities committed by both sides.

Shot in black-and-white in a way resembling a documentary, Battle of Algiers is a hyper-realistic, stark and unforgettable experience. The images of the ramshackle buildings,the narrow alleys, the rampant poverty and the street urchins that populate the screen are stunningly real. So is the determination on the faces of women as they plant deadly bombs in areas not far from small children.

The opening scene sets the tone for what it to come. An intensely frail, emaciated man with sunken cheekbones, is sitting on a chair baring his scarred chest in a room, as a few uniformed men surrounding him express regret that he had not "talked" earlier. He is helped to his feet, after the commanding officer enters the room, and as he struggles to maintain his ground, he is asked to put on the military uniform so that he is not easily identified. As he is about to be taken with the troops, he makes one last desperate but utterly hopeless effort to run away screaming "Nooooooo" but it takes only a few beatings and some threatening words to convince him to co-operate- in informing the French about the hideout of Ali-La-Ponte one of the leaders of FLN.
The FLN, as Lt. Colonel Matthieu explains to his soldiers, is like a tapeworm. Unless you destroy the head, it is always going to be regenerating its body and creating further problems. Col. Mathieu is given charge of combating the rising insurgency in Algeria and maintaining the French rule in the country. He understands that FLN is the greatest threat to French control, and wants his men to get rid of the organization altogether. He describes the protocol observed by outlaws when recruiting new members, and the complications that it entails for the French forces. While not explicitly stating it, he does indicate what is required of an "interrogation" to extract information from prisoners. The torture scenes are painful to watch but no one would question its honest inclusion in the film. Yes, the hideous establishments of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Grahib come to mind just as so many events in this war uncannily resonates with contemporary political scenarios. It raises questions about the justification of terrorism by the weaker side. Is killing of innocent civilians acceptable if that happens to be the only mode of effective attack available for people fighting against oppression? However one has to be careful about interpreting Battle Of Algiers too- it was war to end colonial rule and as such drawing close parallels to other conflict zones may be improper.

Battle Of Algiers does not follow all the events in the war and focuses on the uprising in Algiers. While it depicts the violent activities of the FLN and French attempt to implement counter-insurgency methods to thwart them, there are some lead characters through whom some of the story is developed to provide a personal element to the narration. Many of these are either real individuals taking part in the struggle or are based on other real characters. Ali-La-Ponte is one of them, a disgruntled, illiterate , juvenile offender, he develops a violent dislike for French authority in Algeria and joins the ranks of FLN. Young and impulsive, he does not hesitate in slaying cops or Algerians he considers as traitors. His fiery personality takes takes him higher-up in the organization and he leads the way in staging public protests and carrying out lethal attacks.
The head of the FLN is El-Hadi Jafar, a character that is based on Saadi Yacef and played by himself. Jafar appears more controlled and thoughtful but he is just as radical not only in retaliation and destabilizing the French control, but also in his intolerance for his people who are victims of common weaknesses -alcohol, drugs, prostitution. While we sympathize with the Algerians for their battle against an external presence we cannot ignore the draconian impositions they enforce on society.

Ali-La-Ponte and others initially assault cops and others directly involved in nation's administration and law-enforcement, but after a bomb attack by an extremist French reporter that leaves several people dead, including children (I cannot over-emphasize how some of those images are disturbingly real), they increasingly target civilian French population.
The FLN runs a nationalistic propaganda to convince more people to enter the organization and support their goals. Their efforts to create discontent amongst Algerians is as important as their involvement in destabilizing French control through attacks. Another brilliant stroke of Battle Of Algiers is portrayal of the striking contrast between the poor living conditions of the Algerians, their slovenly attire and the swanky coffee-houses and bars frequented by the French. There is area in the city referred to as "European Quarters" where native Muslims are not permitted to move freely and I assume this was a common fixture in all European colonies. And yet that place is infiltrated by dangerous Muslim women - an entry facilitated by their change in attire more resembling the French . These women had resolved to carry out horrifying attacks and follow through they do with definite anxiety but little or no guilt (if only Hollywood was bold or honest enough to show simple truths like this, we would not be so shocked).

When random attacks increase and create considerable problem for the authorities, the French decide to bring in a military battalion to suppress the revolt. Leading the way is Mathieu, another character based on several French officers,- a suave, charismatic leader who draws enormous admiration and respect for his sense of balance and understanding, even though he does not countenance Algerian uprising and authorizes torture to capture the leaders of FLN. His charm, wit ,elegance and control can never be missed even when as he tackles tough questions from left-wing French media. Far removed from a monster caricature, he is simply a faithful soldier who does what is necessary to impose rule of law and protect French citizens. That does not stop him from publicly expressing admiration for some of the captured extremists, their courage and their principles. Some of his remarks, along with those of Ben M'hidi (the ideological voice of FLN) represent the simple but extremely profound truths about the nature of the confrontation and its ultimate objectives. These truths are simply laid out bare in the film, without any pontification or melodrama. Musical score is rare, but it is used to great effect in some of the dramatic moments like troops storming buildings or while depicting large-scale protests.

In the end, the military cracks down on most of FLN operatives but a few, including its leaders, are still at bay. One by one, they are brought down but not before the face-off results in maximum carnage. On their part, the French rank-and-file display racial and cultural arrogance in their sheer contempt for Algerian natives, often denigrating them as "Dirty Arabs". The Algerian fighters, on the other hand, are so disenchanted with the French that they relentlessly inflict as much damage as possible without any sign of remorse. The FLN is finally destroyed, when the remaining leader Ali-La-Ponte along three others hiding behind a wall are blown to bits after they refuse to surrender for a fair trial.

The FLN in Algiers may have been successfully suppressed and things seemed to be under control for a while but disquietude was most certainly going to grow one way or the other. In the last ten minutes or so, we are taken through a quick roundup of what happened in the following years. The limited random insurgency eventually gives way to massive widespread demonstrations, a collective desire for freedom and a national awakening to the possibility of complete independence. With only a small force battling against a large population, the situation becomes untenable for the French and they eventually concede.

(Algeria gained its independence in 1962 after a plebiscite organized by DeGaulle resulted in an overwhelming support for independence)