Sixty years ago today, Albert Camus gave the speech of his life. It was a speech, in fact, that nearly cost him his life, as well as one that failed in its goal of saving the lives of countless civilians, Arabs and French alike, caught in the vise of terrorism employed by both sides in Algeria’s war of independence. The reasoning behind the speech, as well as the reasons Camus gave it, cast important light on the “war on terror” now being fought in the West.
By early 1956, the war between Algeria’s nationalist movement, the National Liberation Front (the F.L.N.), and the French military had spiraled into mutual butcheries and bloodbaths — from the slaughter of the French colonist population (the “pied-noir”) of Philippeville, where more than 100 men, women and children were hacked to pieces by their Arab neighbors, to the policy of “collective responsibility,” the indiscriminate killing of Arab men, women and children by French soldiers and civilian militias. It was not just Algerians, but Algeria itself, that, in Camus’s words, was dying.
For this reason, on a Sunday afternoon, Jan. 22, shortly after 4 o’clock, a taut and nervous Camus stepped to the podium at the Cercle du Progrès, a Muslim-owned building in the center of Algiers. Born and raised in a working-class neighborhood of Algiers, Camus straddled two dramatically different worlds. There was, on the one hand, his visceral attachment to the people and places of French Algeria; on the other hand, he had an equally fierce commitment to the French republican ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity. First as a muckraking journalist, then as a novelist and essayist whose career would soon be crowned with the Nobel Prize in Literature, Camus fought for the extension of these ideals to the eight million Arabs and Berbers living under French rule. Unlike many fellow pieds-noirs, Camus was horrified by the brutal history of de jure and de facto discrimination against the Arabs and Berbers. Clinging to the hope that “French Algeria” could remain French while becoming fully democratic, Camus insisted that the pieds-noirs and Arabs were “condemned to live together.”
By 1956, however, Camus had come to fear they were instead condemned to kill one another. The prospect of unending bloodshed, fueled by acts of terrorism against the civilian populations, was a nearly unbearable burden. Algeria, he told a friend, was “wedged in my throat.” With equal doses of daring and desperation, in late 1955 Camus wrote a series of editorials in the magazine L’Express arguing for a civilian truce. A treaty between Paris and the F.L.N., Camus allowed, seemed impossible: The violent were carrying it away. But could not both sides at least agree to spare civilians? If not, he wrote: “Algeria will be populated solely by murderers and victims. Only the dead will be innocent.” Aware that it was all too easy to prod and push from distant Paris, Camus decided to speak publicly, at great personal risk, on this initiative in his native Algiers.
Algiers, in turn, was waiting: An audience of 1,500 men and women — French and Muslim, intellectuals and shopkeepers — had filled the hall and spilled into the staircases and adjoining rooms. The atmosphere was tense and febrile, especially as a menacing crowd of French colonists opposed to the meeting was massed outside the building. Camus told the audience that it was his duty, both as a French Algerian and a writer, “to make a simple appeal to your humanity.” Returning to an initiative he had first revealed in L’Express magazine, Camus proposed that the F.L.N. and French authorities agree to a “civilian truce.” Looking around the hall, Camus declared that he had not come to ask that his listeners “relinquish any of their conviction.” Regardless of the ideological, political and historical causes at stake, he continued, “no cause justifies the deaths of innocent people.” Camus insisted he had no illusions: resolving the “present situation” was beyond his means. Instead, he urged his listeners “to renounce what makes this situation unforgivable, namely, the slaughter of the innocent.”
Yet the slaughter of the innocent continued for another six years. Even as Camus spoke, the crowd outside, furious at his “betrayal” of French Algeria, screamed for his lynching. Refusing to leave the hall until he finished, Camus was then hustled to safety by his friends.
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