Of Harper Lee and Salah Abdeslam

Three days after the fortuitous capture of Salah Abdeslam, Europe’s most wanted man for four months, the BBC published a profile of his lawyer, Sven Mary. The title of the piece is deliberately incendiary and utterly telling of the sentiment prevalent in Paris, in London, in Brussels, in Europe: “Sven Mary: The Scumbag’s Lawyer.”

Despite his notoriety in Belgium as a high-profile defense attorney, I had never before seen a photograph of Sven Mary—indeed, I hadn’t even heard the name until I clicked on the aforementioned piece. Hence, it’s fair to say that I never really had much of a chance of building a balanced image of the lawyer in question, my judgment necessarily skewed by the tone of the very first notice I had of the existence of this man. This circumstance immediately made me think of Atticus Finch, the hero in Harper Lee’s cult novel To Kill a Mockingbird.

The connection, I must confess, was neither fortuitous nor particularly inspired. I had been working on a tribute to Lee, who passed away at the age of 89 on February 19 this year, and the parallels are, of course, immediately obvious: set in 1935 in the small archetypal town of Maycomb, Alabama, To Kill a Mockingbird spells out in endearing terms the tense situation that unfolds when Tom Robinson, a black man, is unfairly accused of raping Mayella Ewell, a disenfranchised young white woman. Entitled by law to a defense lawyer, Robinson is paired up with Atticus Finch, the unofficial standard-bearer of integrity and fairness in a town where prejudice is rife—though no more so, I would suspect, than in any real-life small town of the South at the time.

Narrated from the perspective of Atticus’ eight-year-old daughter Scout, To Kill a Mockingbird vividly portrays the life-changing consequences faced by the Finch family once Atticus accepts to defend Tom Robinson: Scout and her older brother Jem are relentlessly bullied by the other children at school; most people in Maycomb start looking at the Finches with suspicion; Atticus even has to put his physical integrity on the line to prevent a choleric mob from lynching his client. And yet, all along, even before the trial starts, one overarching argument comes to the surface: for the sake of justice, Tom Robinson’s story needs to be told.

No matter what anyone says or does, Atticus tells his children, don’t kick, don’t spit, don’t even insult anyone back, because in a world governed by laws rational arguments must prevail over passionate exultations. Atticus knows that the first instinct of the vast majority of people in Maycomb is going to be violent; he expects everyone to assume Tom Robinson to be guilty; he expects everyone to demand revenge. But he is also confident that once the dust of emotions settles the sheer weight of the actual facts will gain prominence against the background of so much speculation. This is not to say Atticus has any expectations about an all-white jury acquitting his client—he knows full well he has not enough time in his hands to allow the dust to settle anywhere near enough to stand a chance. But he still gives his all in a lost battle, just because it’s the right thing to do.

Atticus Finch is maligned by his peers, not so much because he is forced to defend Tom Robinson but because he wants to. That, however, is the full extent of the parallel between To Kill a Mockingbird and the drama unfolding in Brussels right now. Like Atticus Finch, Sven Mary wants to represent Salah Abdeslam: he seems to have been contacted by Abdeslam’s family earlier in January and he immediately made public his willingness to act on behalf of the runaway. But while Atticus is ready to defend the rights of a man who is being wrongfully accused of a crime he didn’t commit, Sven Mary has been engaged by a man who was involved in a heinous blood bath that claimed 130 lives, who has been connected to another terrorist attack that killed thirty more people—a man whose ill intentions are way beyond reasonable doubt, indeed, a man whose murderous delusions have long come true.

Sven Mary. Photo: rtl.be

Though Atticus Finch and Sven Mary share their desire to defend the outcasts of their respective societies, the two of them stand in opposite ends of the spectrum in most other senses. For instance, one of the weaknesses of To Kill a Mockingbird might be how clear cut Tom Robinson’s case is: not only is he crippled and consequently unlikely to have been capable of coercing his alleged victim, he is also facing trial against the most undesirable element in Maycomb, bar the black population. Uneducated, inbred, amoral and hopelessly poor, the Ewells are regarded by just about everyone in town as the lowest form of white life—white trash, quite literally—which enables Atticus to build a case of sorts. Had Tom Robinson been accused of raping any respectable member of Maycomb’s society then he would in all likelihood never have made it to the courtroom, but even if he had his attorney would not have been allowed to put into question the other witnesses’ account of the events. The only reason why Tom Robinson gets the privilege of a fair trial (if not a fair sentence) is because he is up against a member of the nearest rung to his own in the social ladder—even if ultimately the gap between the two proves infinite, unbridgeable.

Evidently, this circumstance could not be farther from the specifics surrounding the case against Salah Abdeslam. Indeed, the situation is so different that Sven Mary has indicated his client has no intention of claiming he wasn’t at the scene of the Paris attacks and has gone as far as saying that he wouldn’t have been prepared to defend him had he chosen to go that route. There is no question Abdeslam is a jihadist fighter; no doubt he was part of the cell plotting and carrying out the attacks of November 13; no question regarding the innocence of his victims and the atrocity of his crime; there isn’t even any uncertainty regarding the extent of his involvement. So what’s the point in defending him? Why would Sven Mary want the job in the first place?

The simplest and most cynical answer is, of course, the notoriety the case will bring. For better or worse, there’s no denying this will make of Mr. Mary an international celebrity. But this explanation alone rings far too simplistic, and while the allure of fame might have played a role in his decision there is something more pressing, something far greater, that needs to be taken into consideration.

Like every other suspect and perpetrator of the Paris and Brussels attacks, Salah Abdeslam is a second generation immigrant from a Muslim family. He holds a French passport through his Moroccan parents’ link to Algeria but he was born in Brussels, he was raised in Brussels, he attended school in Brussels, he speaks with a Belgian accent, he committed his first misdemeanors in Brussels. By all standards, bar the most radically conservative, Salah Abdeslam is Belgian. Salah Abdeslam is as Belgian as J-lo is American; he’s as Belgian as Charles Aznavour is French. Yet in some sense the problem is that he is as Belgian as Tom Robinson—whose ancestry is never touched upon in To Kill a Mockingbird—is American.

Atticus Finch defends Tom Robinson because his side of the story needs to be heard; Atticus Finch steps between the cell where Tom Robinson is kept and a crowd of people ready to take his life because in a world governed by laws there is no room for trial by mob. But Tom Robinson is a good man. Salah Abdeslam doesn’t deserve any leniency, he doesn’t deserve any consideration, he doesn’t even deserve to be heard. However, when Sven Mary tells the press he is contemplating suing the French prosecutor for quoting from his client’s confidential statement, when he condemns the abuse of power entailed by describing his client as “public enemy number one,” Sven Mary is effectively stepping between Salah Abdeslam and the mob, because in a world ruled by laws there is no room for trial by media either.

The sad and thorny fact is that failure to integrate large immigrant communities remains one of the common characteristics—one of the major problems—shared by the vast majority of European societies. Over the past twenty years this question has been raised and revisited time and again in the seemingly futile diplomatic meetings where the future of the EU is regularly discussed. But then, like flotsam in the middle of the ocean, the issue goes underwater again, only to resurface at a later stage with the same frustrating result. In the current climate the challenges posed by mass migration from drastically different cultures will only become greater and the long-term fate of the community quite likely hinges on its leader’s ability to respond to new and ever more pressing issues of integration. Harper Lee was conscious of the dangers of widespread discrimination within a society, and she made it obvious through an oblique—if somewhat anachronistic—comparison between the condition of the African-American population in the deep South and the persecution of the Jewish population in Germany under Hitler’s Nazi regime.

In this sense, there might be one more point of contact between Atticus Finch and Sven Mary: Atticus knows that Tom Robinson is doomed but he is willing to go through the ordeal of defending him in the hope that his case might change things, even if just a little. Similarly, Mr. Mary must surely be well aware that the book will be thrown at Salah Abdeslam, but if he can ensure that the rights of this, the cruelest of citizens, are upheld then Mr. Mary will actually be safeguarding the rights of everyman. Thus, in fact neither Atticus Finch nor Sven Mary are truly acting on behalf of their clients—they are, ultimately, working towards the improvement of their, of our, societies. If nothing else this merits an ounce of respect.



Published in the Weekender supplement of Sint Maarten’s The Daily Herald on Saturday March 26 2016. A later and longer version of this piece was published in the final number of Numero Cinq in August 2017. 

One thought on “Of Harper Lee and Salah Abdeslam

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s