September 2021: A trial of the century begins in Paris. On a Friday, November 13, 2015, seven IS fighters blew themselves up in the Bataclan concert hall, on the terraces of several cafés and in front of the Stade de France, killing 131 people and injuring almost 700. After these attacks, a state of emergency was declared in France – it remained in effect for two years – and the image of the country and society changed permanently, from police methods to the spectrum of parties: a national trauma. In the exemplary trial called “V13” by insiders, this trauma should be dealt with, hundreds of perspectives should be weighed and a judgment should finally be made.
The famous French writer Emmanuel Carrère sat down on an uncomfortable bench every day for ten months in a courtroom specially built for the “trial of the century” and wrote a weekly court chronicle for the news magazine “L’Obs”. reported on actors, the horror, unexpected humanity and the machine of jurisprudence. These essays and written thoughts have now resulted in a book that he has titled “V13”, based on November 13th, a Friday (in French “vendredi”). The book is a portrait of a trial through which a society shaken to its foundations searches for healing. The stage of the specially built courtroom allowed everyone involved to have their say, and so Carrère tells what he heard and asks: Who were the victims and the perpetrators? How does terrorism arise? Why did what happened happen?
Like many other observers, he initially did not expect much from the trial against the Islamists. There wasn’t much at stake for observers because most of the murderers weren’t in the dock. In addition, given the large number of co-plaintiffs, there was a fear that the sheer volume of statements would dilute the horror of the night in the Bataclan or in St. Denis. The court’s historical review of the crimes, which was announced before the trial began, also suggested that the judiciary might only be interested in reassuring French society and showing it that the rule of law and democracy are functional, meaning a pure PR show.
But this quickly changed as Carrère followed the trial day by day. For him, too, many questions about the political, historical context and profile of the defendants remained unanswered. The testimony of the co-plaintiffs was shocking. Normally in trials people are less interested in the victims and more in the defendants. People want to reveal their secret, but in this case it was a very thin secret. But the writer became acquainted with something from the co-plaintiffs that he calls the “secret of goodness”. It wasn’t anything heroic, he says; many survived because they tried to save their own skin. However, he was confronted with many examples of people who were helpful, generous, and self-sacrificing. The way in which many spoke about the loss of their loved ones, about surviving and continuing to live, was also shocking.
Carrère particularly remembered one scene. When asked what he expected from the trial, one of the co-plaintiffs replied that he expected the legal processing in court to create a collective narrative. For the author, this statement made it clear that the trial could serve to connect individual threads into a whole through the witness statements. Based on the individual testimonies, a collective story emerged. As terrible as each individual voice was, the collective sound was overwhelming.
When dealing with such bloody acts legally, it is often claimed that the dispassion of a court is the best antidote to terrorism. But Carrère is convinced that you have to go through a phase of hatred before you reach this kind of nobility, generosity, perhaps not the ability to forgive, but at least the possibility of understanding.
In his conclusion, Emmanuel Carrère comes to a point where, on the one hand, he characterizes the court proceedings as exemplary, but at the same time he sharply criticizes some verdicts. For him, it is a contradiction to condemn petty criminals who did not know what they were involved in as members of a terrorist organization, as if they were highly dangerous perpetrators. At the same time, they were only sentenced to two years in prison. The main defendant, Salah Abdeslam, was sentenced to life without the possibility of a reduced sentence after 30 years. For Carrère, such a punishment would be understandable for a serial offender. Had the terrorist group’s leader, Abdelhamid Abaoud, survived and been in the dock, Abdeslam would have had a realistic chance of a more lenient sentence.
Despite his criticism of some of the judgments, it was an exemplary trial for the writer. The special kind of legal dispassion, coupled with the respect for the co-plaintiffs, even the defendants, had something unique. The chorus of human experience and suffering, of terror and pity, has made every viewer more vulnerable.
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