This weekend, the girlfriend and I had a chance to see Munich, the latest Spielberg opus. For those who don't know, Munich tells the story of a five-man Israeli team that is sent out to kill 11 members of the Black September terrorist group that attacked, kidnapped, and killed a group of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics. The film has come under attack (see, for example, this this this and this) on a couple of different fronts. One is that Spielberg and his screenwriters (including Angels in America's Tony Kushner) have taken great liberties with the truth of what happened in the wake of Munich. That may or may not be true - I'm not familiar enough with the historical record to know. To be fair, however, the film is "inspired" by real events and does not present itself as history (any more than, say, Julius Ceasar or Macbeth do).
The other major critique is that the film does a disservice to the "war on terror" in general, and Israel's waging of it, by suggesting that the mission of the team - to kill those responsible for the atrocity that was Munich - was destined to fail, in the long term. It humanizes the terrorists, equates the justice seekers with them, and thereby provides (in some small way) aid and comfort to the enemy. Based, admittedly, on only one viewing and with my particular point of view, I simply can't fathom where these criticisms come from.
I suppose the flim does humanize the targets of the Israeli team, although I'm not sure that means sympathizing with them. The fact that the first target taken out is a literary scholar who just finished an Italian translation of the story of Scherezade could be seen as trying to give him some "pros" to weigh against the "con" of his role in Munich. Or, alternately, it could be seen as showing how the terrorists involved in the attack were not just young, misguided, angry kids lashing out at the world. That, to me, is ultimately more frightening than a one-dimensional, black-hat-wearing "bad guy." It also counters the standard wartime trend of using propogand to brand your enemy as less than human, thus making them easier to kill (for a fascinating discussion of this during World War II read War Without Mercy: Race & Power in the Pacific War, by John Dower).
But the more misguided criticism is that the film equates, on a moral level, the Israeli hit team with the terrorists they are hunting. I don't really think it does. Nobody really argues that those involved in the Munich attack didn't deserve to be hit or that they should be allowed to get away with their crime. And the Palestinian justifications for the violence simply aren't persuasive. Where things start getting sticky is when, from a practical standpoint, the Isreali thirst for vengeance bears little fruit. Yes, some of those responsible for Munich are killed. But they are replaced in the organization quickly and efficiently (so efficiently, in fact, that the team takes out a replacement, too). And the executions are hardly cost free. Aside from the psychological and physical toll it takes on the Israeli team, there are innocent bystanders wounded and possibly killed during their mission. And, of course, there are reprisals from Black September in retaliation for the hits. In the end, it appears that the two sides are engaged in a deadly dance that neither one is ready to end.
And I think that is Spielberg's point. He is not arguing, as some critics seem to imply, that the only two options in the wake of a Munich or 9/11 are to either kill those responsible or let them live on without consequence. It's that in deciding how to respond to terrorists acts we must put aside the gut instinct to just strike back and carefully consider how to proceed. Recognition of potential unintended consequences and whether any action, in the end, will actually make us safer, should dictate our course of action.
In the wake of 9/11, I wrote this in an Email to a friend:
Hopefully (hopefully), anything we do will be accurate and well reasoned.Was it? Knocking the Taliban down in Afghanistan and, eventually, deposing Saddam can be classified as "good things," but, in the long run, has either one made us safer? The Taliban is regaining strength in Afghanistan, while Iraq is now a cesspool of terrorist activity in a way that it wasn't before Dubya's invasion. I dunno. But I'm not providing aid and comfort to anybody just by asking the question.