Munich: A Descent into Moral Ambiguity

Culture Watch

Mr. Briley is Assistant Headmaster, Sandia Preparatory School.

Steven Spielberg is growing up. The director’s earlier films viewed extraterrestrials and uncomplicated heroes, such as Indiana Jones, with the wonder of a young child. His mature historical work, Schindler’s List (1993) and Amistad (1997), perceived the world as a struggle between good and evil. In his latest film Munich, the filmmaker demonstrates a far more sophisticated appreciation for the role played by ambiguity and paradox in historical causation. Similar to the moral certainty of the George W. Bush refrain, “You are either with us or the terrorists,” Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen) more eloquently states, “Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values.” Spielberg raises serious questions regarding Meir’s philosophical justification for revenge and retribution.

Munich begins with the kidnapping and death of the Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics. The film focuses upon the formation of a top-secret unofficial Israeli team assembled to assassinate eleven leaders of the Black September Movement deemed responsible for planning the Munich attack. Leadership of the unit is assigned to young Avner (Eric Bana), a former body guard to the prime minister and the son of an Israeli hero. Although he and his wife (Ayelet Zurer) are expecting a baby, Avner displays a sense of duty and accepts this assignment which separates him from his family. Avner and his team then proceed to locate and eliminate their targets in a bloodbath which ranges though the major capitals of Europe. The story is loosely based upon the book Vengeance by George Jonas, but the question of historical accuracy certainly plays second fiddle to the larger issue of whether Avner is making the proper moral choice.

Munich is a political thriller, psychological study of Avner, and philosophical pondering of the troubled times in which we live. Fans of John Le Carre will love the complicated political maneuvering of Avner, his handler Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush), and information sources Louis (Mathieu Amalric) and his Papa (Michael Lonsdale). The plot details are almost as confusing as the story line for Syriana, although there are some nice suspense moments in the Hitchcock tradition concerning a young girl answering his father’s telephone in which explosives are planted.

The story’s center is Avner, who becomes increasingly disillusioned with his activities, speculating whether retaliatory violence has brought any security for his nation or family, whom he relocates to Brooklyn. The young Israeli’s desire for a peaceful domestic life is conveyed in his affinity for cooking and a large orderly kitchen. But his actions have only brought disorder to his world. A distraught and paranoid Avner ripping his room apart in search of a planted bomb is reminiscent of Gene Hackman in The Conversation (1974) destroying his apartment while seeking to uncover a surveillance camera. Near the end of the film, Avner tells Ephraim, “There’s no peace at the end of this.”

Of course, this quotation leads to contemporary parallels with the American military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq. And just in case viewers fail to make the connection, the film’s final scene is a conversation between Avner and Ephraim with the World Trade Center towers in the background. Spielberg clearly wants his audience to ponder the morality of the so-called war on terror. Munich suggests that the Americans and Israelis have abandoned the high ground through a violent response to terrorism. Spielberg appears to take a neutral stance between the Israelis and Palestinians, but the director fails to really examine any motivation for the assault in Munich. Some believe that investigating the root causes of terrorism legitimizes political violence. But how are we to ever have a more peaceful world if we do not ask these questions? While recognizing a world awash in ambiguity, the story is still told from the Israeli rather than Palestinian perspective. Avner finds many of the Arab and Palestinians he encounters to be quite personable, but they seem to lack the qualms about killing and collateral damage expressed by the Israeli assassination team. On the other hand, retaliatory air strikes by Israel against Palestinian camps following Munich made no such distinctions between civilians and combatants.

In addition, Spielberg would have us believe that Munich in 1972 and 9/11 in 2001 marked major turning points for Israeli and American foreign policy. However, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank dates back to 1967, and those who believe America was innocent before the tragedy of 9/11 would do well to remember the Phoenix assassination program in Vietnam and the torture techniques taught at the School of the Americas and employed in behalf of U. S. interests in Latin America during the Cold War.

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Gene Williams - 1/21/2006


Mr. Briley (and now yourself as well) have made some very specific accusations...that School of the Americas taught torture and trained "dictators" and that Phoenix was an assassination program. Is either one of these assertiions true or are they myths? Have you done research into the subject and satisfied yourself that you are not just repeating someone's "disinformation"? (You'll recall the Soviet campaign on the US buying body parts from India...very effective...but totally a lie and part of the Cold War.)

My point is that neither assertion you and Mr. Briley have made is in fact proven truth and that to use these two events to denigrate the US, which is what Mr. Briley is trying to do in his opaque review of the flim "Munich," is intellectually questionable.

Perhaps its time for someone to write about Phoenix and the context in which it existed. Fir instance, was it an "assassination program" or did it neutralize the enemy infrastructure in South Vietnam by intelligence and arrests? Can you really have an "assassination program" killing your enemies in wartime when they are armed and can shoot back? If so, what does one make of our attacks against the Al-Qa'ida leadership in Pakistan?

But whatever, to bring Phoenix up in this review does indeed seem to me to be silly, especially since "Munich" was in the end so important a part of the Cold War and about which so little really has been written.

Richard F. Miller - 1/20/2006

Mr. Mendez: Sure, that program and that school existed, although this is not the time or place to discuss the context in which they existed or the purpose they served, other than to note that the connection claimed by Briley, i.e., American innocence, is specious in the extreme.

Innocent of what? Here Briley's theology enters the scene. Not evidencing much historical knowledge beyond bumber stickers, Briley creates a fiction of American "innocence" then invents a date--9/11--before which, he asserts, the public was somehow beguiled into believing it was "innocent" of the steps warring nations take to win wars. "Those who believe" in this innocence, he thunders, "would do well to remember...." and he continues merrily along in his finger-wagging, lessons-of-history, morality sermon.

Really? Well, if Briley wants to string together a series of controversial actions far worse than those he cites, he could argue that those who thought we were innocent (pick your date) before 2003 (OIF), 2002 (OEF), 1945 (WWII), 1916 (WWI), "would do well to remember" Shock-And-Awe/Blowing-Up-Afghan-Villages-by-Mistake/Hiroshima/Nagasaki/Dresden/Hamburg/Tokyo/Use-of-Phosgene-Chlorine-CW. Hey, those who "thought we were innocent...would do well to remember" 1861 when Union soldiers routinely returned fugitive slaves to their masters.

The point here sir, is that Briley serves up sermons not arguments and links items (about which he explains nothing other than the hope that you, too, have read the same bumper stickers he has about the big bad Phoenix program or the terrible, terrible School of the America's) to his principal arguments that are in fact, unrelated.

As I've said before, he's a rather mediochre priest of the Church of Amerika offering religiously vetted reviews for the faithful.

And if by chance you actually know something about, say, the Phoenix program, well, I guess you'll have to join some other church.

N. Friedman - 1/20/2006

Mr. Méndez,

Not to bud too far into your conversation with Mr. Miller, but I think his objection is not really to the use of such references but to the manner of their use.

To me, such a critique may, in fact, be interesting and important, but is not nearly sufficient for understanding - and, in fact, such a critique often tends to obscure any real understanding of - Muslim rage vis a vis the dispute between the Muslim regions and the West.

Of course, one can make the argument that the West ought not do such and such because it is wrong or violates our principles of justice and/or morality. That sort of critique has precedent at least as far back as the Bible which interprets the doings of the Israelites, Israel and Judea in terms of collective morality/sinning - when "Israel" sins, it suffers, etc. -. But, that sort of critique is about us, it is not an explanation of Muslim rage, terrorism or anything else.

Which is to say, the critique that the West did evil to the Muslim regions is an interpretation of our actions, not an explanation about how Muslims understand our actions and not an explanation for their rage.

In order to understand why such people hate us or are enraged, it is necessary to examine them, their history, their politics, their culture and religion, not just what we think may offend. After all, the offense may be quite different than we think. Or, the offense may be that our ascendence is illegitimate because their religion says that Muslims must be dominant. And the cause of the terrorism may be, given such an explanation, that such manner of fighting is believed to be the best way to gain ascendance over the West. Again, the actual causes cannot be found by self-critique, which is what Mr. Briley offers.

Mr. Miller, I think, takes the point one step further than I do - and he may or may not be correct -. He would have it that the use of such references not only fails to address why people do what they do but, in fact, is part of a political program in the West that has to do with the West - as in, hate Amerika - and nothing to do with analysis. He may be correct. He may not be. But, his point is certainly legitimate comment.

Sergio Alejandro M?ndez - 1/20/2006

Mr Williams:

"his is sort of like, "Oh my Jeep blew a transmission yesterday, which reminds me of My Lai."

Err...This is what mr Briley is actually saying? I think his point is that the US could not call innocence concerning its acts about the world.

"t's not important that Mr. Briley understand anything about SOG Phoenix or the School of the Americas;"

Mr Miller:

What is there to specifically understand as Mr Briley used those references in his post? Is or not true that the school of americas trainned dictators -on torture among many other things- that ruled in latin america during the cold war? Is it true or not that the US had an assasination program created by the US be practized on Vietnam?

Gene Williams - 1/19/2006

After seeing the film, there were some historical errors. But, perhaps now is the appropriate time to discusss the history of terrorism. Here is an outline.

All modern terrorism as we know it originated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) of George Habbash and Wadi'a Haddad. Both were Christians; Both were Marxists,

In 1967 Wadi'a "split" from Habbash and formed his own autonomous group called the PFLP-Special Operations Command. His idea was to mobilize the European Left to help the Palestinians. He contacted and trained ETA, IRA, the Greek anti-junta groups (ELA, etc.), Italian groups (Red Brigades, Autonomia Operaia, etc.), the French Action Directe, Belgian CCC, the German Groups (Revolutionary Cells, RAF, etc), the Danish Appel Group, Turkish groups including Dev Sol, Kurdish groups (the PKK), etc.
etc. He was the man who taught others how to hi-jack aircraft and shake down Arab and Western governments for money, understanding that without cash, his operations couldn't go forward. It was his group that Carlos joined.

This forced Fatah to counter or be seen as weak. Fatah created Black September and Munich came out of this organization. But Black September allegedly disappeared in 1974 after 'Arafat pledged to abandon international terrorism...(He didn't, he just changed the names of his groups- in fact some believe he created Abu Nidal aka - Fatah-Revolutionary Council, aka Black June, etc),

But PFLP-SOC created havoc across the world. PFLP-SOC with its German allies and international auxilliaries did the OPEC operation (Carlos), the Jan 1975 attempt to shoot down an airliner in Kenya (with three Germans), Entebbe (with Wilifred Boese and Babara Kuhlman of the German 2 June movement), and the hi-jacking of the Lufthansa flight to Mogodiscu to free Baader, Meinhof and Enslin and other RAF members in jail in Germany...its failure provoked the suicide of the RAF leaders in 1977..)

Wadi'a was based out of Baghdad. In Fall 1977 after 10 years he decided he couldn't trust Saddam and made preparations to move his Hqs. Saddam poisoned him...he died in a Czech hospital in Feb 1978 and was buried with honors by Habbash, And out of his organization came a plethora of Commmunist Palestinian groups including the LARF (Christian/lebanese), 15 May (of Abu Ibrahim, an explosives expert and operations chief for Wadi who was trained by the KGB and based himeslf in Baghdad), ASALA (Armenian communists), and the Carlos organization.

Now here is the rub...These organizations were created by the left wing of the Palestian movement, the ones who still wave flags with Che's picture on them. In fact, i believe (without firm evidence) that Sirhan Sirhan was one of Wadi's men and that Wadi' was behind the assassination of RFK (perhaps as his 'coming out" cache). The were helped by the Communnist Bloc (Indesputable evidence) and by many of the Left Wing intellectual elite of Western Europe including Jean Paul Satre and others.

With the help;of the East Bloc services, these extreme-leftist marxists Palestinian organizations along with their European Allies prospered and killed and disrupted Europe, bringing some European nations almost to their knees. Though, the West Europeans often tried to buy them off, this did not insure immunity. And when the Wall fell, much of the truth of the Communist world's involvement in terrorism was revealed.

It is this lesson which needs to be pondered. The extreme left created modern terrorism as a way to attack both capitalism and the West's ally Israel. The Communist world along with the major State terrorist sponsors (Iraq, Syria, Libya at the time and...Romania) cynically manipulated and used the Palestinians. The methods learned from Wadi' were copied by the Islamic extremists (Fatah actually is behind some of these Islamic organizations too including the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and other groups). Thus the Soviets and E.Bloc and their fellow travellers bear some responsibilty beyond Afghanistan for our modern scourge.

As a footnote, the movie mentions Wadi' as one of the persons involved in Munich. He wasn't and Carlos was his man not 'Arafat's.

Richard F. Miller - 1/19/2006

Mr. Friedman: In all likelihood, Mr. Briley has as much interest in Islam as I do 18th century French stemware. His real interest--and it runs through all of his "reviews"--is "Amerika." In his solipsistic world, if it can't be projected on his anti-Amerikan screen, it doesn't exist. Briley on "Munich" is simply agit-prop on agit-prop. Its principal significance is less in what he has to say and more how what he says is emblematic of the "herd of independent thinkers" to which he belongs. It's like reading the Nation without bothering to subscribe.

N. Friedman - 1/19/2006

Typo correction. The paragraph that begins, "When one reads Ahmadinejad's recent speech ..." should begin "One reads Ahmadinejad's recent speech ..."

N. Friedman - 1/19/2006

Mr. Briley,

The assumption that some people have is that they can trace the root causes of today's Jihadis - including the Arab Israeli dispute - solely to Israel and/or solely to the imperialistic actions of the West regarding the Arab regions or the wider Muslim regions.

That, of course, is only a theory. It is, to be frank, only one among many root cause theories and it is a remarkably ahistoric theory.

Another theory - which not only takes into account the actions of the West but also underlying forces in the Muslim regions and Islamic religion, culture and history - is the resistance of among Muslims to the notion of equality for non-Muslims and to the notion that forces other than classical Islamic forces might have major influence in the world.

The objection to equality finds its roots in the Qu'ran, Islamic theology and law, not to mention the social privileges that such afforded Muslims when, in fact, Muslims did have real military power and influence.

I think that we have war against the West and Israel in large measure to restore privileges lost to history and also a push to gain world power - and not merely for some sort of justice in view of Western intrusion - for the sake of power, as mandated by religion. The latter also has direct roots in the Islamic tradition - history, culture and religion -

Consider the Tanzimat reforms pushed onto the Ottoman Empire by the European powers during the 19th Century. Those reforms were directed toward bringing equality to the empire's large non-Muslim population. The reforms sought were part of Europe's policy of humanitarian intervention, a policy which not only advanced European power over Muslims (i.e. served imperialistic purposes) but also, where it was more or less implemented, brought equality, education and dignity to the mistreated non-Muslim subjects of the Empire.

Which is to say, the Tanzimat reforms were a good thing, in theory, to anyone who actually cares about justice and equality. This is a lesson lost upon those who choose to see only Western imperialism and Israel as causes. So, it is rather too simple - to the extent of being a gross distortion - to speak about imperialism and Israel as the root causes.

The effort to bring improvements and, where sucessful, the improvements themselves for non-Muslims - substantial improvements, in fact - were very deeply resented by the Muslim population. For example, there were terrible massacres committed to prevent the reforms from being implimented against the Maronite Christians )10's of thousands of Maronites were massacred) and against the Armenians (in 1894 to 1896, several hundred thousand Armenians [as many as 250,000 [were massacred], and this is even before the terrible events of 1908 and the genocide of 1915).

Under European domination, equality more or less existed. Today, the Europeans no longer directly rule and, as a result, the idea of restoring lost privileges is not only widespread among Muslims but in considerable measure is beginning to be implemented. And, along with that comes the idea of restoring Muslim power as the world's premier power.

It should also be recalled that the non-Muslim subjects of the Empire also wanted independence from Islamic rule. This flew in the face of the Islamic tradition and religion, the truth of which involved, to considerable extent, subjugation by Muslim overlords, while the self-interpretation by Muslims was one of benign tolerance of infidel by superior Muslim rulers who were rightly guided. The push for independence was possibly due, at least in part, to the military weakness of the Ottoman Empire, the imperialistic policies of the West (divide and conquer by making alliances among the captured Christian nations living in the Empire) and, obviously, the push for equality by the West - which placed dangerous ideas, such as equality, into the minds of non-Muslims in the Empire -.

When one reads Ahmadinejad's recent speech which not only calls for Israel's destruction but states that the main goal for Islam is to regain lands lost to the Europeans over the course of centuries. These lands include (e.g. Greece, the Balkans, etc.) and even Spain and Portugal. And, in many speeches by Islamists, there is discussion about restoring lost privileges. Throughout the Arab regions and in much of the wider Muslim regions, the tradition of restoring the ruler subject relationship between Muslim and non-Muslim is being revived.

My suggestion to people like Mr. Briley: the theory that the West has done wrong is largely a Western critique of the West, with roots in our tradition. It is reminiscent of the Biblical theory that God punishes his chosen people collectively for their sins. It is, however, not real history. The historical roots of Islamic rage have as much to do with Islam, its history and culture as it has to do with the West. And, were the West to cure its own sins, that would not end the drive by Muslims to gain power over the West, would not stop the Jihadis from attacking and would not stop the drive for societal privileges over non-Muslims. Which is to say, that theory does not get at root causes. It is a diversion.

Richard F. Miller - 1/18/2006

Dear Mr. Williams: It's not important that Mr. Briley understand anything about SOG Phoenix or the School of the Americas; he's not supposed to understand much and he assumes that his preferred reader--those that agree with him--should wallow in the same shallow sea. The reason is that Briley employs each of these references as a metonymy. Although not genuine history--it only pretends to be "historically contextualized"--it is in fact a form of theology, or to be more precise, theodicy.

There's nothing wrong with theodicy--most of us have one. But theodicy does not require chronologically related, evidence driven argument. Years ago, the Catholic Church used to publish (and may still) brief movie reviews with attached ratings. Nothing wrong with that, as long as the reader understood that this was faith applied to cinema. Mr. Briley also gives us faith applied to cinema--he worships (to use a metonymy of my own) at the Church of Amerika.

In reading Briley, one should expect less Aristotle and more Savonarola.

Gene Williams - 1/18/2006


Here we go again with casual apocolyptic references to Vietnam apparently based on urban myth being dropped willy nilly into whatever analysis is up for discussion. This is sort of like, "Oh my Jeep blew a transmission yesterday, which reminds me of My Lai." Ron..what do you know about the Phoenix program in Vietnam? Do you have any idea what you are talking about when you discuss Vietnam?