What sticks with me most from Paradise Now is the image of the slick, assured Jamal, dressed in a tweed jacket and casually assuring his two suicide bombers of the heaven that awaits them and the nobility of their actions. His first action in the film is to tell Said that he has been chosen; later on, after Said has gone missing, he speaks of nothing but the problem Said has caused, portraying him only in terms of his utility to the militant organization. Leaving aside all the politics of the film (nothing I say below should be taken as any political or moral statement of my own), Abu-Assad’s presentation of Jamal is not sympathetic and constitutes one of the more unambiguous criticisms of the militant movement in the film.
Contrast Jamal to the militant leaders in Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers, who are as involved and at risk as any of their lieutenants. The Algerian militants lead by example, underscored in how the film shows their rise from the absolute bottom of society, while the leaders in Paradise Now are secretive, smooth, and manipulative. Said and Khaled, the two bombers, are mostly pushed around by forces that they hardly understand.
It’s not just that Jamal is manipulative, but that he represents “the management.” The exploitation and dehumanization of the peons of an organization by its management is such a seemingly universal situation that it makes the members of the militant organizations understandable–no longer the inhuman “other” that the viewer is a tourist amongst–and this is a significant achievement. The Battle of Algiers is far better as propaganda, but its realism only goes as far as the historical level; its characters are hollow in comparison. It is the greater film, but it does not provoke the shock of recognition that Paradise Now does.
Likewise even with Al Qaeda, where the Los Angeles Times underscores the obvious in describing nepotism, micromanagement, and rhetorical hot air:
Yet Mohammed describes a terrorist outfit fraught with the same conflicts and petty animosities that plague many American corporations. Mohammed describes himself in particular as having to fend off a chairman of the board who insists on micromanaging despite not knowing what he was doing.
Had Mohammed not insisted on such security measures, he suggested, Bin Laden might have endangered the whole mission. That’s because Bin Laden, an exiled Saudi multimillionaire with a huge trust fund, apparently had a knack for forcing Mohammed to take operatives who couldn’t follow directions or keep their mouths shut.
These are patterns that I have seen in every hierarchy I’ve been a part of, from academia to corporations to newspapers to the arts. The most comprehensive portrayal I’ve seen remains The Wire, where the bureaucratic and organizational details of both police department and drug dealer alike ring eerily true: empty suits at the top, political exploiters in the middle, manipulated peons (or frustrated rebels) at the bottom.
Many terrorist leaders have had western educations, so I hesitate to say that the microstructures of these hierarchies are universal, but there is still something uncanny about how the patterns of exploitation and mismanagement repeat themselves with such regularity across diverse situations. I’ll have more to say after I read Albert O. Hirschman’s Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States.