TCS Daily


An Olympian Effort

By Ilya Shapiro - December 27, 2005 12:00 AM

You don't need a doctorate in Middle Eastern Studies to realize that the war on terror wasn't made from whole cloth on September 11, 2001. Osama bin Laden and his ilk didn't suddenly decide that they had had enough of Western decadence, that the election of George Bush (or that of Bill Clinton, if you go back to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing) was the last straw, necessitating urgent action.

Nor was the sleeping U.S. giant roused from its slumber that ominous sunny morning four years ago. Sure, the metaphor works in terms of the intelligence community, or for portraying how our foreign policy inadequately anticipated and reacted to post-Cold War threats, but we -- and especially Israel -- have been facing (and fighting) Islamofascist inhumanity for decades.

Now comes America's master filmmaker to try his hand at depicting one of the iconic episodes of this particular clash of civilizations: the 1972 massacre of the Israeli delegation to the Munich Olympics.

More precisely, Steven Spielberg's Munich (based on George Jonas's Vengeance) chronicles the aftermath of that tragedy, when Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir orders a crack team of ex-Mossad agents, acting without official connection to the government, to hunt down and kill the members of Black September, the PLO terrorists responsible.

Spielberg pulls it off. Despite the venom coming from both Palestinian apologists and defenders of Israel, the movie is compelling, cinematographically and historiographically -- indeed, such opposing criticism is an indication of its power.

The story is told through the eyes of Avner Kauffman, the somewhat reluctant but always dutiful leader of the counter-terrorists and the main source for Jonas's book. As he and his team travel to London, Paris, Athens, and Beirut to carry out their assigned task, the psychological toll of what they are doing (revenge killing) builds on the viewer as much as on the people being portrayed on screen. By the end, we are all exhausted by the escalating loss of life and growth of hatred, the violence that is so massive, so personal, yet so the opposite of gratuitous.

Into it all -- from the team's first meal together (much of the moral angst is shared across various dinner tables) to the conclusion of their cloak-and-dagger operations -- Spielberg splices flashbacks to the fateful events of Munich. And he masterfully saves the final graphic slaughter on that lonely airfield tarmac for a particularly climactic scene that I won't spoil here.

Kauffman, played stoically, languidly, mournfully by Eric Bana, fights an agonizing war with his conscience and with the demons that make him see his pursuers everywhere. He loses sleep, and sanity, and moves his family to Brooklyn to try to find, somehow, somewhere, escape from the madness. He will never be the same, it seems, but then neither will the world, after Munich.

Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, faults Spielberg for the "sin of equivalence," for presenting the causes and actions of Black September and Kauffman's team in the same light:

Palestinians murder, Israelis murder. Palestinians show evidence of a conscience, Israelis show evidence of a conscience. Palestinians suppress their scruples, Israelis suppress their scruples. Palestinians make little speeches about home and blood and soil, Israelis make little speeches about home and blood and soil. Palestinians kill innocents, Israelis kill innocents.

Wieseltier, and those who see in Spielberg's "evenhandedness" yet another example of Hollywood's left-wing anti-Western bias, miss the point. As producer Kathleen Kennedy explained after the advance screening I attended, the filmmaker's task is not to be political, but "to tell a good story." The best movies -- the best political movies -- are not those that beat you over the head with some message (contra Michael Moore). They let you come to your own conclusions.

One gentleman complained during the post-screening Q-and-A that Munich purposely dehumanized the Palestinians, made them into "monsters," while portraying the Israelis as flesh-and-blood heroes. Yet what to make, for small example, of the scene where a PLO operative quietly disclaims on his motivations, being able to live peacefully with his family in his own nation? Led to believe that Kauffman's group was a mix of European revolutionaries (ETA, IRA, Red Brigades, etc.), this would-be patriot spits on "you European reds with your slogans and ideas," saying that he is happy to take their support and funding, but doesn't really care for their causes. Because, at the end of the day, he laments, everyone has a country where they will be welcomed -- except the Palestinians.

Having sat transfixed and mesmerized for two-plus hours, I can say that the overriding message is not that Israel was wrong to go after Black September, or that the terrorists' actions can be excused (or at least understood) because of the supposed righteousness of their cause, or that all Palestinians, or Arabs, are terrorists. It was that terrorism is bad in pure black-and-white terms, but that fighting terrorism involves many shades of gray.

Ambassador Dennis Ross, U.S. envoy to the Middle East under Presidents Clinton and George H. W. Bush, observed that Munich was really about picking the best of bad alternatives in dealing with terror. Not responding equates to appeasement but any response has a profound effect on those carrying it out. It cannot but be so; we are human.

In short, go see this masterpiece. See for yourself the geopolitical aftermath of the Olympics' loss of innocence and judge for yourself its relevance to the present day. For those of us who study the (unfortunate) interrelationship of politics and sport -- and for all of us living in the post-9/11 world -- Munich haunts us still.

Ilya Shapiro is a Washington lawyer whose last "Dispatches from Purple America" column explained what he learned from dating college girls.

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2 Comments

Mantle of Gray
If fighting terrorism "involves many shades of gray" then please ensconce me in that gray uncolored veil and allow me to be slathered in its pallid pigments. If I am seen as impish and narrow minded for my desire to see the fight against terrorism fought than so be it. Fight the good fight. Spielberg should have made this movie at some other time. Why today? I’m happy to see Mr. Spielberg try and wrestle with his own personal morality as it pertains to the middle east, but don’t try and drag the rest of us into his unresolved issue accompanied with outstanding sound and heart wrenching drama. I have enough confusion and drama in my own life. I don’t need Spielberg’s.

Charmin Doctrine
I came away from the movie with much the same response as Ilya. To deny the awfulness of the choices presented is naive. We are forced to choose from imposed alternatives, none of which would we choose absent the externally imposed challenge. So, I came up with a new doctrine - the Charmin Doctrine - which addresses the need to clean up thoroughly after each event not because cleaning up will prevent future events, but because the accumulated detritus resulting from failing to clean up presents a guaranteed unhealthy consequence.

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