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  • Spielberg’s Munich, Ethics, and Israel
  • Kenneth Waltzer

Steven SSpielberg's movie, Munich, on the campaign of retaliation waged by Israel against Palestinian terrorists in response to the killing of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, turns out not to be the morally simplistic, misguidedly even-handed film about which some critics have publicly worried. Spielberg draws no moral equivalence between Palestinian terrorists and Israeli counter-terrorists. Nor does he suggest that there's not rough justice in assassinating those who assassinated others.

Yet Spielberg and scriptwriter Tony Kushner offer an anguished look at killing and killing again in a fictional portrait of Israeli actions after Munich, dramatizing a deep ambivalence about strategies of blood for blood undertaken by nation states and by Israel in particular. How do those charged with these activities maintain their moral balance and values? Where do such activities ultimately lead? At the film's end, the filmmakers hit us over the head with their view in a final scene where the Israeli team leader, Avner, a killer who is himself hunted and burdened, opts out. His final declarations to his Israeli handler who, like Abraham, would sacrifice his Isaac, are made against a Manhattan skyline, with the United Nations and World Trade Center towers in the rear.

But if Munich purports to be a meditation on ethics, as one reviewer suggests, it is also difficult to find any deep heavy lifting in this thriller about the ethics of national security and of combating terror. Leon Wieseltier, in a broadside against "Munich" in The New Republic, suggests that "the fakery is everywhere," in a hollow Hollywood film animated by a dream of peace and a sense of human tragedy, but without any comprehension of the realities of the Middle East or the real dilemmas of national leaders responsible for people's safety, and with little heart or empathy for the project of Israel.

Nation states pursue all sorts of strategies on behalf of their interests and values. The West German Bundesrepublik pursued its own interests in [End Page 168] collaborating with terrorists who, shortly after the Olympics, hijacked a Lufthansa airliner and demanded release of the surviving Black September terrorists captured in Munich. The Germans capitulated. The Bavarian state government pursued its own interests covering up results of the investigation after Munich, which showed remarkable German lack of preparedness, ineptness, and failed responsibility. This prevented Israeli families from being compensated. Israel covered its own record of negligence and stupidity in failing to protect the Israeli delegation sent to Munich. It accepted no responsibility and fired few officials. The world is an amoral place marked by anarchy and lawlessness. Nation states are also amoral. Spielberg even invents a fictional anarchist family in the film headed by an anarchist Godfather with an amoral code of behavior. It deals with all sides, playing all against all, but it tolerates no dealings with nation states.

But then what guidance, what ethics of response, does "Munich" offer—to trust in reason and international law? To look to one's own, escape the conflict and settle in multicultural Brooklyn? Is there no moral complexity—no range of possibilities—between a nation striking back forcefully against terrorism and terrorists, on one hand, and individuals opting out, on the other? Does striking back, killing killers, simply perpetuate violence? Spielberg apparently thinks the latter to be the case. He told Time Magazine recently that "a response to a response doesn't resolve anything. It just creates a perpetual motion machine."

Spielberg and Kushner push forward two morality tales in "Munich"—at the levels of the individual and the national community. The filmmakers are even-handed in approach to the tragedy in the Middle East—two peoples, two homes, two national dreams in a terrible clash. But it is not the meta-politics of the Middle East that is the primary preoccupation. Terror and counter-terrorism are. Assassination involves a heavy personal toll to the humanity of the assassins; it eats away their Jewish souls. Assassinations also get no one anywhere. Strategies of counter-terror compromise and corrode the righteousness of the national cause. In a sense, violence corrupts those who do it and the...


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pp. 168-171
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