It is hard to believe that the same man who made ET also made Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, and now Munich, but he did. This movie has been hailed as Steven Spielberg's masterpiece, and it certainly is a compelling drama, based on the book by George Jonas entitled "Vengeance". Only time will tell how this movie will be judged. What is more certain is that this is the movie that Syriana should have been, and a more effective commentary on both terrorism, and the attempt to 'fight fire with fire' in response to terrorism I cannot really imagine. This is a movie that really all adult Americans should see, if they want to understand not only why so many Jews and Arabs hate each other, but also why Jews have every right to be fearful, paranoid, terrified about what may be coming next. If Presidents of countries can deny that the Holocaust ever happened, we need a few more movies like the one's Spielberg has made.
The kidnapping and killing of Israelis at the Munich Olympics in 1972 is actually not the subject of this movie but rather its point of departure. The story is about what Golda Meir, and members of the Mosada decided to do in response to the Munich massacre, which was to go head-hunting for the eleven Arab men involved in that event, who were austensibly members of Black September. If you are not old enough to remember that group, Google the name and learn a little history about terrorism in the west. It certainly did not begin with 9-11-2001.
The story revolves around the group of men 'unofficially' enlisted by Mosad to do away with the terrorists, picking them off one by one. Eventually nine of the eleven were killed between 1973 and 1979, including the mastermind of the scheme. However, the response to this covert operation was that many more Israelis, Americans, and innocent others were killed by letter bombs and other sorts of acts of terror.
The real heart of the story revolves around a young man named Avner, a son of an Israeli war hero, who leads these men on their mission of revenge. He is a good man, with a tender soul, and a lovely wife and child that he loves dearly, and a great love for Eretz Israel and the right of Jews to have their own land where they are subject to no one but themselves. At least, on paper, that is what he thought he was fighting for at first, but as time went on, he too becomes brutalized by the whole process. One of the most telling lines in the movie is when Avner is speaking with the father of his informant while they are both preparing a meal and the father says, "you and I are alike--- we have the hands of butchers, but tender hearts" This, as it turns out, is who Avner becomes.
Clearly one of the not so subliminal messages of this movie is that if you respond to terrorists in kind, you become the very thing you despise and hate. Vengeance may be a meal best served cold, but it requires cold blood killers, or else it leaves a person without a soul. This point is not lost on the bomb-maker of Avner's group, who when Avner decides to go after, not one of the original terrorists but after a hired woman killer who had killed one of the Jews on his team, the bomb-maker opts out. Tellingly he says "We are supposed to be Jews, we are supposed to be righteous and not just murderers, if we do this I lose my soul. I cannot" It is one of the more moving scenes in the almost three hour movie.
Spielberg very effectively portrays the paradox of being a killer for hire, while at the same time being a family man who loves his wife and children. Avner, struggles however with this reality while some of the others do not. He begins to question what it is all about. One of his partners in the group says that he does this and loses no sleep because "only Jewish blood matters to me", but Avner seems unconvinced. The movie rightly raises the question what is worth fighting and killing for, and does so in a way more poignantly than a war movie could, because in this case we are not talking about a declared war following Geneva conventions. We are talking about a covert and illegal operation which Avner was told in advance his own government would disavow knowledge of. What are the ethics of terrorism, either as an intiative or an act of vengeance in response? The movie does not glamorize either the instigators or the respondents. It prompts many thoughts about terrorism.
The first of these is this-- that terrorism is for the most part the act of cowards, not brave men, particularly when it involves a suicide bomber, for example. I say this because these are persons who know that, at least on earth, they will never be held accountable for their actions, and so their actions are not measured, they are indiscriminant-- and the innocent are always victims in such acts, not just the 'targets'.
Secondly, clearly enough the intention of much terrorism is simply to create terror in the heart of one's enemy, so they will enormously over-react, spending money, time, energy, manpower in defensive maneuvers to try and protect one's self from further acts of terror. When one responds in fear like this, the terrorists have already won. It is a good question whether this describes the American response to 9-11. Are we really that much safer with all the billions we have spent since 2001 on airport security and the like? Or would we have been better served pouring the money into eliminating the root causes of terrorism-- injustice, poverty, disenfranchisement, lack of a safe homeland in the Middle East, and the like? There are no easy answers to these questions. And what about a Biblical perspective on terrorism in general and vengeance taking in particular? I will leave you with one thought.
I was busy writing a commentary on Matthew when I got to the famous passage in Matthew 18 when Peter asks Jesus how many times must he forgive someone who sins against him. Peter doubtless saw himself as being generous when he said--- seven times, which in Hebrew numerology stands for completion or perfection. Jesus responds by saying not seven times but seven times 70 (or possibly 77 times)-- in other words, continually, as many times as it takes.
This is of course an ethic for the followers of Jesus, not for governments, but still it is a remarkable ethic since the OT is famous for saying "an eye for eye....". It is even more remarkable when one realizes that Jesus is deliberately inverting Gen. 4.24 when Lamech says that if Cain was avenged seven times, he would be avenged 77 times. Jesus' ethic involves stopping the cycle of violence and revenge by forgiveness. Instead of payback, it is a matter of paying it forward, and trying to build a new healed situation. This, unfortunately is not an ethic "Munich" mentions even in passing. Instead, the movie ends with Avner with his family but always looking over his shoulder, and deeply troubled by what he has done. Rightly so--- as the Bible says "vengeance is mine sayeth the Lord, I will repay". Those humans who sow the wind, will one day reep the whirlwind. Let us all ponder these things.