The mythos of Carlos the Jackal

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Modern terrorism has shaped our world in dramatic and obscure ways: Washington’s unbridled power to read our emails and tap our phones, President Barack Obama’s extraordinary decision to kill an American citizen hiding in Yemen because his sermons have inspired terrorist attacks, the lines at airport security as federal agents confiscate such potentially lethal items as toothpaste, cuticle scissors, and Diet Coke....

“Carlos the Jackal,” as the press fawningly called Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, was the first modern terrorist superstar. For nearly 20 years beginning in the mid-1970s, he staged or masterminded spectacular, made-for-the-media attacks, initially for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a radical splinter of Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization. Then, after becoming a radical superhero on a par with Che, he took refuge in the Eastern Bloc and ended his career as a thuggish, bloated egomaniac paid to kill on a fee-for-service basis by some of the Mideast’s most odious regimes.

Now the attention he so fiercely coveted has finally been paid with Carlos, a five-plus hour French film that won acclaim at Cannes last spring. But he is still not satisfied. The film is not accurate, he recently complained in a jailhouse radio broadcast from Poissy high security prison, in France, where he is serving a life sentence for the 1976 murders of two French secret agents and an informer. His commando team, for instance, was not a bunch of “hysterical men waving submachine guns and threatening people,” as the film suggested, he said. They were “professionals,” he declared, “commandos of a very high standard.”

French filmmaker Olivier Assayas evidently disagrees. His bio-epic of the life and times of the Venezuelan-born revolutionary—brilliantly portrayed by Edgar Ramirez, another Venezuelan who is not related to his namesake—depicts Carlos as a brutal, charismatic narcissist who pleasures himself through violence. Members of his band of international revolutionaries are portrayed as vicious, fanatical amateurs.

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