Spielberg's fictions

'Munich' is a barely-disguised polemic against fighting terrorism, and even Israel's national legitimacy.

munich movieposter29888 (photo credit: )
munich movieposter29888
(photo credit: )
Steven Spielberg said that he made Munich to promote a dialogue about the nature of terrorism and the efficacy of counterterrorism. His screenwriter, Tony Kushner, said that he did not feel compelled to portray Israel's retaliation against the Munich killers accurately because "an audience has the resources to check" what is real and what is fiction.
Well, here's a reality check. • Did Israel's anti-terrorism efforts following Munich create a "cycle of violence"? The film portrays a squad of Mossad agents, led by a fictional character named Avner Kauffman, tracking down and killing the Black September terrorists who perpetrated the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics. As the movie progresses Avner becomes increasingly disillusioned with his mission. His chief concern is that counterterrorism only incites more terrorism, which in turn provokes reprisals. The trouble with this "cycle of violence" perspective is that it confuses cause and effect. The period immediately preceding Munich was plagued by airline terrorism, including the blowing up of a Swiss airliner, killing all 47 passengers and crew, and dozens of deadly hijackings. Palestinian hijackings were successful precisely because even when the hijackers were captured they were quickly released as soon as Palestinian terrorists hijacked another airplane. This long pattern of high-publicity-low-risk hijackings is what encouraged Black September to up the ante by infiltrating the Olympic Village in Munich. As I wrote in my book Why Terrorism Works: "Based on the reaction to international terrorism over the previous four years, the terrorists planning the Munich operation could expect to succeed in attracting the world's attention and be relatively certain that if any of the terrorists were captured, they would not be held for long." In short: It is the success of terrorism, and not attempts to combat it, that invites its repetition. The movie ends with the image of the World Trade Center projected on the screen. Several reviewers and commentators have interpreted this image as insinuating that Israel's policy of targeting terrorists for assassination caused, or at least contributed to, the attack on 9/11. Such innuendo is patent nonsense. Osama bin Laden cares not a whit about Palestinian terrorists or Israeli counterterrorism measures. His target is the United States, Christianity, capitalism and Western values. He selected the World Trade Center because it symbolized American power. Neither Spielberg nor Kushner had the courage to overtly link counterterrorism efforts to 9/11, because such a claim is so easily refuted by the facts. Instead they resorted to the kind of symbolism that has a profound impact on the emotions of viewers without an opportunity for logical response. • Why didn't Israel let Germany and other European countries arrest and extradite the terrorists? Near the end of the movie Avner asks his Mossad handler why Israel killed the Black September terrorists instead of arresting them. The answer, never given in the film, is that the arrest method had failed. Arrested terrorists were never tried and imprisoned for long. Between 1968 and 1975, 204 terrorists were arrested outside the Middle East. By the close of 1975 only three were still in prison. George Habash, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (a Marxist terrorist group responsible for some of the Palestinians' most brutal mass killing), noted that Europe's refusal to imprison terrorists meant that when it came to plotting hijackings and bombing, "success [was] 100-percent assured." Even when Israel managed to arrest and imprison hijackers, this only encouraged further hijackings designed to release the imprisoned terrorists held by Israel. Indeed the best evidence of why the arrest method advocated by Munich would not work was provided by Black September's own demands in Munich - that Israel free over 200 imprisoned terrorists who had been arrested. Israel understood that releasing terrorists would encourage future terrorism. Without European cooperation Israel stood little chance of curbing international terrorism. Sure enough, Germany released the surviving Black September terrorists less than two months after Munich, when Palestinian terrorists "hijacked" a Lufthansa plane. (According to the senior aide to Germany's interior minister, it is "probably true" that the "hijacking" was orchestrated as part of a German-Palestinian scheme to free the terrorists.) It was the German decision to free these killers to kill again that strengthened Golda Meir's resolve to take the steps necessary to protect her citizens; but you would not know that from watching Munich. Since these terrorists killed by Israeli agents were surely combatants in an ongoing terrorist war, it was as lawful for Israel to target them as it is for the United States today to target Osama bin Laden or Ayman Zawahiri. SPIELBERG'S MOVIE is concerned with proper homes. A PLO militant delivers a lecture on his people's connection to all of Palestine, with no room for a Jewish state of any size. Avner, who is the movie's moral compass, seems ultimately to adopt Ali's view. By the end of the movie he, too, renounces Israel as his home. Presumably the filmmakers believe that a Jew's rightful place is Brooklyn, where Avner moves, and not Israel. This is consistent with Kusher's one-sided political view that he has "a problem" with Israel's very existence, and that it "would have been better if it never happened." The millions of Jews who escaped Muslim oppression in the 1950s and Soviet oppression in the 1970s and 80s would certainly disagree. So would the thousands of Israeli civilians whose lives were saved by Israel's proactive steps against terrorism disagree with the major premise of Munich, namely, that counterterrorism is always counterproductive. The writer is a professor of law at Harvard. His latest book is The Case for Peace: How the Arab-Israeli Conflict Can Be Resolved.