It being a weak weekend for new movies, we decided to settle for The November Man, a grade B thriller starring Pierce Brosnan. Brosnan plays Peter Devereaux, a retired CIA agent who is lured out of his comfortable life in Lausanne to perform another mission that takes him first to Moscow and then to Belgrade. He’s a cold-blooded killer, but eventually we learn that he might have some soft spots. I’m not going to summarize the convoluted and somewhat predictable plot, but will jump right to the moral dilemma at the heart of the story. It involves a Russian politician, Arkady Federov, who is on the verge of being elected the next Russian president. The CIA is interested in helping Federov out, since he is pro-American and might even lead Russia to join NATO. Now there’s a tempting prospect in this time of increasing tensions with Russia over Ukraine and elsewhere. Think of it: finally a true end to the Cold War conflict that has been hanging over the world’s head all our lives.
But it turns out that Federov is hiding some dark secrets, in which the CIA is also complicit. And Devereaux has to decide whether to help bury the dirty past in order to bring about peace in the world, or to expose Federov’s crimes and cause his downfall, which will keep the US-Russia conflict alive. It’s the age-old philosophical question of whether the ends justify the means, a common theme in spy stories. Naturally there is a beautiful woman involved who may have to be sacrificed in order to bury the scandal. Should he let her die, and thereby help realize the goals for which he played the spy game for so many years? Or should he help her reveal the secrets that will destroy Federov, tarnish the agency, and threaten world peace? Devereaux gives a rather cavalier response to this question when it is posed to him, but it actually represents a serious dilemma that is frequently encountered in attempting to resolve conflict.
One of the top reasons people advance for being reluctant to agree to a negotiated resolution of conflict is that they cannot abandon the quest for truth and justice. I just heard this feeling expressed recently in a mediation between two former business partners who each felt betrayed by the other. World peace was not at stake in that case. Still peace between these two parties, possibly even forgiveness and reconciliation, might be achievable, perhaps only at the expense of pursuing justice. At first neither side was quite ready to let go of the conflict. Each still wanted to punish the other side and vindicate their positions in court. Eventually each conceded some ground to the other, making resolution possible.
I’m not sure we should ever try to talk people into sacrificing truth and justice in the name of peace. Instead we might talk about how difficult (and costly) it is to obtain truth and justice in our imperfect system. Or even better to help people appreciate at least a little bit of the other side’s conception of truth and justice. That way people will sometimes realize that a negotiated resolution might represent the fairest possible solution.
What they won’t be happy being told is that they should give up on the quest for truth and justice. That goes against the grain, not only of nearly every story Hollywood has ever told us, but probably of human nature.