What’s Right With ‘Munich’

From opinionjournal.com

by HEATHER ROBINSON

I’m a Zionist, and I liked Spielberg’s film.

Avner Kaufmann, the reluctant warrior and protagonist of Steven Spielberg’s movie “Munich,” is honorable, strong, a family man–that is, a typical Israeli. That is why “Munich,” although intensely criticized by pro-Israel commentators, ultimately does Israel and the civilized world at least one service: At a time when anti-Semitism is all-too-often repackaged and sold in politically correct form as “anti-Zionism,” “Munich” offers mass audiences a compelling portrait of an Israeli struggling courageously to confront evil. Despite its lapses, “Munich” still has value for illuminating Israel’s position–and that of all civilized people confronting terrorism.

The film’s opening sequence juxtaposes images of the scene inside the Israeli athletes’ quarters during the Munich massacre with actual TV news coverage of the event in 1972, including footage of a masked Palestinian terrorist outside on the athletes’ balcony. We see and hear commentary from ABC’s Jim McKay and Howard Cosell, then witness dramatization of the horrors, right down to the gunshot in the face of Moshe Weinberger, the Israeli wrestling coach who, after being shot in the face, managed to knock one terrorist unconscious, and to knock out another one after being shot numerous times in the chest.

This interspersion of actual televised footage with carefully reconstructed dramatization is one of the film’s strengths. In an age rampant with historical duplicity, sometimes extending to Holocaust denial, there is value in providing a mass audience with incontrovertible evidence of historical events.

The early sections of the film also communicate an important point about terrorism: that it is conceived for the cameras, designed not only to devastate its immediate victims but to manipulate public opinion and bully the world. At one point, the Israeli assassination team members find themselves watching a televised interview of several of the terrorists who carried out the massacre. One of the terrorists, when asked if he feels they accomplished anything by murdering the athletes, says, “[We] have made [our] voice heard by the . . . world who has not been hearing before.” (Here again, Mr. Spielberg uses actual news footage.) To which Steve, the most militant of the Israeli assassination team, says with disgust, “Look at them. They’re movie stars.”

Indeed. Here the film provides a sobering reminder of the ways in which much of the world in 1972 allowed terrorism to be legitimized as political expression, accepting the notion that a cause could justify such crime, and has paid dearly ever since.

The bulk of the film tells the story of the hunt for the architects of the Munich massacre. Avner and his team travels to European and Middle Eastern cities including Rome, Paris, Athens, Cyprus and Beirut to assassinate their marks, whom Avner locates via Louis, an “ideologically promiscuous” Frenchman whose family business is providing intelligence at steep prices. This part of the story is drawn from George Jonas’s 1984 book, “Vengeance,” which was supposedly true but has since been discredited.

Yet even if the story is fiction, “Munich” may be, to paraphrase Picasso, a lie that tells several truths. The first is that Israelis do not target civilians, and in fact go to exhaustive lengths to avoid hurting them. The Israeli assassination team’s second hit is Mahmoud Hamshari, a Palestine Liberation Organization spokesman who is also a terrorist recruiter. The Israelis wire his phone with explosives that can detonate only by remote, so that they can control the exact timing of the explosion.

To ensure the safety of Hamshari’s wife and daughter, the team waits until the two have left the apartment. The ill-timed arrival of a truck prevents the Israeli team from seeing that the wife and daughter, having forgotten something, have returned to the apartment. When one team member, Carl, hears the daughter pick up the phone, his panic–and that of Avner–is palpable. They race to abort the mission and avoid killing the child as if their own lives depend on it. Mr. Spielberg has done a service in presenting a mass audience with this scene, as it is consistent with the attitudes of most Israelis and reflects the policies of the Israel Defense Forces, which go to great lengths to avoid harming civilians.

Second, this portion of the film illuminates the different ways Israelis and Palestinians value the lives of their children. Avner’s concern for the safety of his own wife and baby daughter is paramount in the film. In contrast, while predicting the ultimate destruction of Israel, the Palestinian character Ali says that it doesn’t matter if it takes hundreds of years, because “we have a lot of children, and they’ll have children,” who can be sacrificed to the cause. This attitude that one’s children’s lives aren’t worth the price of compromise is one of the major stumbling blocks to peace in the Middle East, and one of the major differences, at present, between Israelis and many Palestinian Arabs.

Finally, Avner, the film’s protagonist, kills not for the sake of glory or to destroy, but to punish the athletes’ murderers and to deter future terrorism. He kills not with exultation, but with simple determination to do what must be done. Eventually, he suffers psychologically. The film does raise questions about the efficacy and morality of a violent response to the Munich atrocity. But contrary to the claims of some pundits, to discerning viewers it does not suggest a simplistic “moral equivalency” between Palestinian terrorist masterminds and Israeli counterterrorism agents.

And while “Munich” respects Palestinians’ quest for self-determination, it does not imply terrorism is ever a legitimate or effective means of achieving it. Because for all their self-doubt, the Israeli team members do carry out their mission–and they are the film’s heroes.

“Munich” has relevance for Americans as well. The Munich massacre can be viewed as a precursor to September 11. Both were acts of mass murder as part of a psychological war. The enemy understands that Americans and Israelis have a deep reverence for individual life and that the world is increasingly connected via media. Thus they conceived their monstrous crimes as media events that would be viewed world-wide in an effort to demoralize the West.

Avner’s psychological distress in the film is a metaphor for the distress of any civilized society forced into violent confrontation with a brutal enemy. Many critics of “Munich” think the film promotes the idea that the response to terrorism should not be violent, because “violence begets violence.” That naive view is definitely present in the film, but what many critics have glossed over are the ways “Munich” aptly dramatizes the real differences between terrorism and counterterrorism–differences that apply to America’s war on terror as much as to Israel’s.

In the scene with Hamshari’s daughter, and also in a later scene in which Avner, at some risk to his own safety, shields the teenage son of a terrorist, the film dramatizes the stark difference between terrorists and those who fight them: While terrorists target innocents, counterterrorists do their best to protect them. These scenes reflect civilized nations’ commitment to protect innocent life, and never to stoop to the enemy’s level.

The film also makes clear that Israeli counterterrorism agents do not kill for glory or pleasure, or to expand an empire. Like Americans today, they fight fairly and honorably against vicious enemies who deliberately inflict horrors on civilians as a means of psychological manipulation. “Munich” depicts civilized, decent men who can–and do–give the terrorists what they have coming. Now more than ever, that’s a good image for the world to see.

Ms. Robinson has written for The Wall Street Journal, New York Post, Los Angeles Daily News and Philadelphia Inquirer.

This entry was written by and posted on February 8, 2006 at 10:05 am and filed under Commentary.