Friday, April 07, 2006

"The Day of the Jackal"

What is life like in societies which don't guarantee that a person detained by the authorities must be brought before a court of law so the legality of the detention may be examined? Most of the fictional accounts of that scenario suggested to this site have been about the darker side of what can happen.

Michael Crittenden writes in about a thriller with a scenario suggesting lives might be saved if the authorities can keep a detainee out of sight of the judiciary: Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal.
So on to Day of the Jackal and its role in the habeas corpus debate. I'll assume most folks understand the basic premise of the novel, which follows the massive manhunt for the assassin known as the Jackal hired by the OAS to take out De Gaulle after the Algeria mess.

The scenes I'm focusing on come after the Jackal has been hired by the OAS high command, who to ensure the secrecy of the plot lock themselves in a hotel in Rome so they cannot be kidnapped (this happens to another OAS higher up earlier in the novel, who the French intelligence secret away and "disappear"). The French government's Action Service knows there is something afoot, but don't know how to discover the plot without breaking into the OAS high command, which is relatively impossible. Seems conducting a firefight attack on foreign soil wouldn't go over to well.

The weakness they discover is Kowalski, an OAS bodyguard and bag man who is the only member of the party to leave the hotel, and that's sporadically to pick up the mail and run errands for his masters holed up in the hotel. So the French intelligence services set up a sting on Kowalski, tricking him into thinking his young daughter is dying of leukemia and getting him to make a surprise trip to France and out of Rome.

When he gets to France--the name of the exact town escapes me--Action Service agents take Kowalski captive and secret him away to an unlabeled government prison where they begin to question him after he wakes up days later from his many injuries (severe concussion, various broken bones etc.). The scenes involving the questioning are starkly brutal, as the questioning process involves metal clamps attached to Kowalski's nipples and genitals which conduct the electricity controlled by his interrogators. In a room smelling of vomit and sweat and cigarette smoke they question him for hours between sending painful shocks through his system, eventually breaking him and killing him in the process.

In the eyes of the government agents, the imprisonment, torture and death were a success: Kowalski's incoherent and painful ramblings ended up giving them the codename "jackal" and that the assassin was blond and a foreigner. So it's an example of when the suspension of habeas corpus benefited the republic by giving them the clues that helped them prevent the assassination of De Gaulle.

On the other hand, you get the sense in the way Forsyth describes the interrogation and the pain the thug goes through, that he doesn't necessarily approve of it or at least leaves open the idea that it's a line that governments have to make a conscious decision to cross. To this point there is a scene with a doctor and the head intelligence agent who derides the agent's methods and warns that the brutality would either turn the prisoner into a vegetable or kill him. So in this case the argument is for the suspension of habeas corpus, but with the caveat that to do so one must descend to the level of the various criminals and terrorists you are trying to stop.
Michael R. Crittenden is a reporter at Congressional Quarterly Weekly.

Although the novel may support varied views of habeas corpus, there is no doubt where the author stands on the matter. See this radio essay by Forsyth broadcast in 2004, and his response to Britain's plan to introduce control orders to keep foreign and British terrorist suspects under house arrest where there isn't enough evidence to put them on trial.

Thanks to Mike for the suggestion.

--Marshal Zeringue