G for Guerilla

Love it or hate it, critics agree that V for Vendetta is a film about terrorism. Wrong.

I just got back from seeing V for Vendetta.(Don’t worry: there are no spoilers below, or not many.) It’s suspenseful, disturbing, and a visual stunner. Alan Moore, the author of the original—outstanding, though irresponsibly anarchistic—graphic novel, has disowned the film for playing fast and loose with his dialogue and plot, but I was amazed at how much of the original’s basic tone and spirit the movie retained.

For now, though, I’m interested in the widespread buzz that the movie “glorifies terrorism.” Whether this dark film glorifies anything is an esthetic question, but my objection is different: nothing in the film amounts to terrorism.

Terrorism is usually defined as the use of force or the threat of force against innocent civilians for political purposes. But the “V” character in the film doesn’t target civilians. He assassinates some leaders, and other leading functionaries, of a completely totalitarian regime—surely legitimate targets. He kills policemen and soldiers when they come after him, but those are legitimate targets in a guerilla war too. And he’s certainly a grand saboteur—he starts the film by blowing up the Old Bailey and spends most of the rest threatening to blow up the Houses of Parliament—but unlike Guy Fawkes, V’s role model, who was trying to kill the whole ruling class of Britain, he destroys the former, and threatens to destroy the latter, at night when the buildings are empty. V does treat one innocent civilian (I won’t say whom) in ways that by his own admission amount to torture. But he does it in secret and with no attempt at propaganda value. That’s a horrific crime, and I would even hazard (against the film’s intended grain) “evil”—but not terrorism either.

V is portrayed as the product of torture himself, and barely human in his sentiments. I hope viewers don’t try to become like him. But I’m still disturbed that commentators have applied the “terrorist” label to activities that in fighting true totalitarians would be (mostly) not only justified but honorable and courageous. One possible reason for this disturbs me particularly. In the film the fascist authorities call V a terrorist about every three minutes, as an organized propaganda campaign to discredit him. Does such incessant repetition work, subliminally, even on film critics?

UPDATE (warning: this does contain a spoiler regarding one early scene): a possible exception to the above would be one scene, pretty early in the movie, where V takes over the studio of BTN (“British Television Network,” the state’s propaganda arm) by walking in with explosives tied to his chest and threatening to blow everyone up if they don’t put him on the air. I’d contest the idea that this clearly counts as terrorism: fascist propagandists are arguably legitimate targets along with the fascists. (In Nazi Germany, would it have been “terrorism” to blow up, by suicide methods or otherwise, Goebbels’ house, or the headquarters of the Voelkischer Beobachter?) Moreover, I think the film meant strongly to suggest that the explosives were fakes all along, the threat a bluff. I admit that the case is difficult; if anybody wants to call V a terrorist based on this scene, there’s a legitimate argument. But I haven’t seen any commentary that focuses on this scene with such care. In practice though not in theory, all the reasons for labeling V a terrorist seem to be bad, as above.

And I’ve thought of one more bad reason that strikes me as the most likely at all: we can’t easily get our heads around the possibility that courteous Brits (or fill in the ally of your choice) could in fact ever be the moral equivalent of Nazis. Generations of cheesy Teutonic portrayals have made us conflate ideological assessments with ethnic ones. If this is indeed how we think, it’s not an unexpected corollary of human nature—but seems a pretty dangerous one.

Author: Andrew Sabl

I'm a political theorist and Visiting Professor (through 2017) in the Program on Ethics, Politics and Economics at Yale. My interests include the history of political thought, toleration, democratic theory, political ethics, problems of coordination and convention, the realist movement in political theory, and the thought of David Hume. My first book, Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics (Princeton, 2002) covered many of these topics, with a special focus on the varieties of democratic politics and the disparate qualities of mind and character appropriate to those who practice each of them. My second book Hume's Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England was published in 2012; I am currently finishing a book on toleration, with the working title The Virtues of Hypocrisy, under contract with Harvard University Press. A Los Angeles native, I got my B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. Before coming to Yale I taught at Vanderbilt and at UCLA, where I was an Assistant, Associate, and Full Professor; and held visiting positions at Williams, Harvard, and Princeton. I am married to Miriam Laugesen, who teaches health policy and the politics of health care at the Mailman School of public health at Columbia, and we have a twelve-year-old son.