Politics & Policy

Munich vs.Vengeance

The controversy takes London now.

Munich continues to stimulate controversy. Steven Spielberg’s film was initially criticized by variety of columnists, from the conservative Charles Krauthammer to the liberal Leon Wieseltier, for its alleged anti-Israel bias. It is now being hotly debated in London, where itdebuts this weekend. And back in Hollywood itself, there is now the ultimate in hype: A controversy is brewing about the controversy.

In this new hyper-controversy the villain is our old friend–”the vast right-wing conspiracy.” This conspiracy is apparently so vast that, on this occasion, it includes left-wingers like Wieseltier. And, like God, it moves in mysterious ways its wonders to perform.

Alerting us to its machinations, a Los Angeles Times writer, Rachel Abramowitz, asks if the movie has been “swift-boated” (translation: damaged by a campaign of right-wing criticism.) She quotes one of its producers, Kathleen Kennedy, as lamenting that “we always knew…there were going to be people who were not going to be open to a discussion.”

These conspirators have now spoiled Munich’s chances in their typically perverse way–by openly discussing it. Or, as Kennedy puts it in her wittily paradoxical way: “We live in a time where there is a very loud and strong right-wing constituency that is hellbent on suppressing any of this kind of dialogue.”

Their methods are devilishly cunning, Watson–they suppress dialogue by taking part in it “loudly.” If only these suppressors were themselves suppressed, then the advocates of a free and open dialogue could enjoy the monologue of which they have been so wickedly deprived by point-scoring Trappists.

Spielberg himself makes a somewhat better fist of defending himself–he could hardly do worse–in the British media. Awkwardly, however, he has to defend himself against both criticism and praise.

The criticism came from Canadian journalist and author, George Jonas, (and old friend and former colleague of mine) who wrote Vengeance, the book on which Munich is based; and the praise from pro-Palestinian British journalist, Robert Fisk. If anything, Fisk’s praise was more damaging than Jonas’s criticism, since it praised what Spielberg denies: namely, that “the film deconstructs the whole myth of Israeli invincibility and moral superiority . . .”

That, of course, is exactly why Jonas dislikes Munich and regards it as a distortion of his book. He has more than a point there. As the two titles signal with brutal clarity, the attitudes of film and book are radically different and even opposed.

Vengeance is prepared to justify counterterrorism (what is now called “targeted assassination”), whereas Munich washes its hands of it. And the two versions of what happens to the counterterrorists differ subtly to reflect these two attitudes, even while telling the same story. But let us ask a few skeptical questions:

It is an account of how the Israeli government dispatched a team of counterterrorists–one of several–to hunt down and kill the Palestinian terrorists who massacred the Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic games in Munich. The team was given substantial resources and told to carry out its mission independently. It paid a criminal gang for information on the whereabouts of the Munich terrorists and then either shot or bombed them until someone–Black September? The KGB?–began to hunt the hunters. Three counterterrorists died in more or less suspicious circumstances and the mission came to an end–but not before it had successfully eliminated most of the targeted terrorists.

It is generally accepted that Israel sent out several counterterrorist “hit” teams to kill the Palestinian terrorists. Jonas’s book is based on a single source, “Avner,” who claimed to be the leader of one such group. Official Israeli sources deny his claim. But they once denied that any hit teams at all had been dispatched, and, as Jonas points out, neither official denials nor official confirmations are reliable on matters pertaining to secret intelligence.

Jonas himself checked Avner’s story by using the methods employed by police in criminal investigations, visiting the scenes where the terrorists were killed, verifying the physical details given by his source, and so on. Avner’s account checked out well. Jonas concluded that Avner was telling the truth in general, even if some of his points were not confirmable. That is about as near to the truth as we are ever likely to get.

He is a distinguished investigative journalist (as well as a poet, screenwriter, columnist, etc.) who won an “Edgar” for his nonfiction book By Persons Unknown about a famous Toronto murder. That does not make him infallible, but it gives him credibility. Counting against him is the rumor that Mona Charen cited in a recent NRO article: “But Jonas was the second, not the first author to whom this particular Israeli had peddled this tale of ‘Avner,’ the Israeli hit man. The first, according to Time, was a writer named Rinker Buck who was offered an advance from Simon and Schuster. But the deal fizzled when Buck traveled to Europe to check his informant’s information and found that ‘he was changing his story daily.’ Buck said he could not write the book in good conscience. Jonas apparently could.”

Mona Charen was correct to say that this was the purport of what Time wrote, reproducing stories that had originally appeared in the London Observer and Canada’s weekly Macleans. But were Time, the Observer and Macleans themselves correct? In the latest edition of Vengeance, Jonas puts this rumor to rest in his afterword, “Notes on a Controversy.” He obtained Buck’s original critique on which the published stories had been based. It proved to be, at the very least, far more “equivocal” than the reports it had midwifed alleged.

“Am I suggesting that I no longer believe my co-author’s account? No,” wrote Buck. “Explanation for all of these differences is plausible.” Avner’s account was “internally plausible.” And so on. Buck was simply uncomfortable with the commission. Jonas gives good reasons for reaching a different conclusion, and he is frank and clear about the uncertainties that remain.

That is a slightly unfair question–the two belong in different categories. Vengeance claims to be a strictly factual account of something that really happened. As such it is excellent. It is told as excitingly as a thriller, and yet it sticks closely to the truth as best it could be established.

Munich is a mixture of fact and fiction–a gripping and fast-paced political thriller that conveys in scene after scene (including some real television coverage of terrorist atrocities) what Europe was like in the 1970s under the shadow of Mideast terrorism. Those critics who have attacked Munich as poor cinema are, in my view, misled by their political disagreement with it. Considered as a thriller, it works splendidly.

But Spielberg and his screenwriters wanted to produce more than a thriller. They wanted a film with real moral and political significance that would contribute to peace in the Middle East by challenging conventional Israeli and American attitudes towards terrorism. So, while tracking the events described in the book closely, they include fictional scenes, imagined dialogue, and character developments which transform Munich from fact to “faction.” These distinguish the film sharply from the book, but far from making it more significant, they weaken it morally, politically, and aesthetically.

There are two main plot inventions–and one aesthetic innovation. The first plot invention is a conversation between a Palestinian terrorist and Avner–whom the Palestinian mistakes for a German Bader Meinhof terrorist–on a staircase at night; the second shows the Israeli counterterrorists feeling remorse for their actions, which they come to believe are futile. The aesthetic device plays with time, showing the murder of the Israeli athletes only in the film’s penultimate scene, long after we have seen Israel’s retaliation for this monstrous crime.

Though Spielberg now claims otherwise, they jointly advance three political arguments: that the Israeli policy of killing identifiable murderers is more or less the same thing as the terrorists’ policy of randomly murdering the innocent; that the Israeli occupation of land once owned by Palestinians justifies their terrorism; and that killing the terrorists is futile even if it is justifiable, because it merely recruits new terrorists.


Again, no. Indeed, merely to state clearly this argument is to refute it. A man who murders innocent by-standers is not the same thing as a man who resists oppression. The first is defined by his actions, the second by his aspirations. And if someone seeks freedom by murdering innocents, he is to be condemned as a terrorist, even if we sympathize with his aspirations. He may even forfeit those aspirations.

This moral distinction is clearly stated in Vengeance by the Israeli spymaster (played in the film by Geoffrey Rush.) He points out that Israel is hunting the Munich killers not because they seek a Palestinian homeland–he concedes that this aim may be justified–but because they murdered innocents in pursuit of it. That speech, however, does not occur in the movie. Its absence may be the most significant thing in Munich.

Of course not. This argument is rooted in the staircase conversation. A sympathetic Palestinian says that he and other terrorists (the Basque ETA gangs, the IRA) simply want to return and live in their old homes. The blame for their terrorism rests on those who now live in those homes and refuse to leave. But those old homes were lost partly because Arab states refused to accept a peaceful division of Palestine and launched an unsuccessful war to impose their own solution. Launching an unsuccessful war (or four) has consequences: other people now live in those homes.

If it is legitimate to use terrorism to expel them, then German “expellees” from Eastern Europe would be justified in hijacking Czech planes and bombing Warsaw restaurants in order to regain their old homes. (Indeed, Hitler would have a passable case for an earlier “Munich” since his justification for threatening war was that the Sudeten Germans were being forced to live under an alien government.) Would Spielberg–or his screenwriters Tony Kushner and Eric Roth–accept that argument as legitimate? Doubtless not. But their rejection of it would be at the cost of consistency.

In Munich this argument rests mainly on the apparent remorse of Avner and his fellow agents and on the regrets Avner subsequently expresses to his handler. What happens in the book is somewhat different. One of the team gets depressed when his colleague is murdered (a fate he himself subsequently suffers). The remaining team members become frightened when they realize that someone is now hunting them. And Avner becomes disillusioned not over the morality or usefulness of counterterrorism, but because he feels that he and his family are being short-changed by his Israeli spymasters. He broke cover in Vengeance, Jonas speculates, partly for money and partly to relive the excitement of earlier days.

Even if Avner’s remorse was genuine, however, it would be a weak support for an implausible argument: Namely, that terrorism is likely to increase rather than shrink when the cost paid by the terrorists rises. After all, if death is no disincentive, then terrorism itself has no utility and Spielberg would not be making significant films about it.

To add further support to a shaky argument, therefore, Spielberg introduces his device of time-reversal which has the punishment occur before the crime. Now, reversing time can be a very powerful and revealing technique. Harold Pinter’s Betrayal tells the story of an adulterous affair backwards, beginning with the final parting and ending with the first kiss. At the big romantic moment, we know the betrayals and pains ahead.

Spielberg puts his time reversal to no such good use. It is a pictorial expression of the nonsensical argument that retaliation causes terrorism–the classic fallacy that an effect can bring about its own cause. Propaganda that depends for its impact on reversing the laws of nature will always be more ingenious than persuasive.

Well, Jonas is clear that he rejects these arguments at almost every point. In the concluding paragraph of Vengeance he writes: “One can, in terms of moral justification, distinguish between counterterrorism and terrorism in the same way one distinguishes between acts of war and war crimes . . . It is possible to say that the Palestinian cause is as honorable as the Israeli cause; it is not possible to say that terror is as honorable as resisting terror. Ultimately both the morality and usefulness of resisting terror are contained in the uselessness and immorality of not resisting it.”

Spielberg’s critics from the other side essentially endorse Munich’s political drift and regret only that he didn’t go further and explicitly condemn the founding of Israel and its occupation of what was once Palestine. Fisk even argues that Spielberg prettifies Israel’s counterterrorism by omitting its mistaken murder of an innocent Moroccan waiter in Norway. Fisk is wrong about that–the Norwegian murder was carried out by a different hit team. Nor is Fisk himself above prettifying terrorism when it suits him: he describes the Dutch woman whom the Israelis shoot in retaliation for the killing of a colleague as a “call girl.” In fact she was a contract killer. That may not excuse her murder, but it certainly casts it in a less horrific light.

He is frustratingly ambiguous. On the one hand, as he told the London Sunday Times, “I personally believe that Golda Meir (who was the Israeli prime minister) needed to respond in the way that she did because Israel would have been perceived as weak had it done nothing to attempt to dismantle the Black September network in western Europe. The film doesn’t criticise Israel, it doesn’t even criticise Israeli policy, but it says that there are unintended consequences in everything that has to do with violence.” He expresses “unqualified support” for Israel while raising “these very, very sensitive issues between Israelis and Palestinians and the whole quest for a homeland.” He tells the Observer that “until we begin to ask questions about who these terrorists are and why terrorism happens, we’re never going to get to the truth of why 9/11 happened, for instance.”

At one point he even takes up Kathleen Kennedy’s tactic of calling for a vigorous debate confined to people who agree with him: “I encourage people to agree or disagree with what I am doing. But not by saying it was bad to have ever made this film. That’s political censorship disguised as criticism and that’s not what I am accustomed to in the marketplace of democracy.”

Not necessarily. Killing terrorists in third countries invites two objections. It is illegal, and thus likely to damage relations between the country harboring the terrorists and the country seeking to kill them. And it risks killing innocent people misidentified as terrorists–as happened to the Moroccan waiter in Norway.

It can therefore be employed only in extreme circumstances. Those circumstances existed in 1972. The murder of the Israeli athletes at Munich was an exemplary terrorist act requiring an exemplary response. When West Germany released three terrorists responsible, it served notice that European governments would not deliver an exemplary legal response–or indeed, any kind of justice. That official cowardice freed Israel to act on Bacon’s aphorism: “Revenge is a kind of wild justice.”

See the movie. Trust the book.

John O’Sullivan is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and editor-at-large of National Review. He is currently writing a book on Reagan, Thatcher and Pope John Paul II.


The Latest