Friday, January 06, 2006

Munich-- Terror, Terrible, Terrifying

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.


Marc Axelrod said...

I never noticed that Jesus was inverting Genesis 4:24 in the past. That was a beautiful observation!

I was going to the movies every Monday am, but I haven't been able to lately. I might this week, though.

Maybe I will see Munich.

stc said...

The ethics of Jesus are difficult enough to apply at a personal level, and notoriously problematic to apply with respect to the administration of a state. I'm sure I don't need to point that out to you, but I'm puzzled by the post.

Are you saying that governments should, for example, forgive criminals instead of incarcerating them? Similarly, should we turn the other cheek to terrorists? With respect, this is not a policy I would support, even though I am a follower of Christ.

George Jonas, the author of Vengeance, is featured in the current Macleans (a Canadian periodical). He disagrees with Spielberg's reinterpretation of the book. Jonas believes there is a valid moral distinction between terrorism and counterterrorism, and that Spielberg has obliterated that distinction. Jonas accuses Spielberg of maintaining neutrality between good and evil.

The Jewish bloggers I read are very disappointed with Munich. (Here, for example: "from all accounts, from critics and supporters alike, it seems Spielberg went the moral equivalence route. So terribly, terribly, disappointing.") I haven't seen the movie yet, but I wonder … do you not think there is any validity to these concerns?

Ben Witherington said...

I do thing there is some validity to some of these concerns, and as Paul says, the State has the right to bear the sword. I don't think much of 'counter-terrorism' as it is usually practiced however, and this movie illustrates the problems with such a strategy, and the human toll it takes on the exactors of revenge.

I think what Jesus requires of his disciples is one thing, public policy another. The individual Christian will have to decide then whether being a soldier or a policeman is compatible with being a follower of someone who instituted an ethic of non-violence and forgiveness. In my case, I don't think it is compatible. Furthermore, I don't believe there is such a thing as a just war, just more and less injustice.

stc said...

• Ben:
Thanks for the clarification. I understand your point here, this movie illustrates the problems with such a strategy, and the human toll it takes on the exactors of revenge.

That makes more sense of the post for me.

But I'd just like to point out the significance of the core issue of this debate. Western Liberal media have a hard time distinguishing between terrorism and counter-terrorism, and they tend to view the Israelis as morally equivalent to terrorists.

But let's think about the historic events behind the movie. The terrorists deliberately targetted non-combattant Israelis — Olympic athletes. In response, the Israeli government set out to assassinate the terrorist leaders. (Admittedly, without the niceties of due process — nothing was proven in a court of law.)

I think Jonas is right: there's a valid moral distinction here, and the West needs to bear it in mind instead of interpreting events as morally equivalent.

That said, I take your point about the effect this has on the people who carry out the assassinations.

Isaac M. Alderman said...

Dr. Witherington-

What is your opinion of R. Niebuhr's Moral Man and Immoral Society? I was particularly taken by the concept that an individual, in an attempt to be moral, enables the society to be moral. For example, a person's patriotism leads him or her to enlist in the military, thus enabling the government to wage immoral war. Isn't this the case with Islamic insurgents or Iraqi nationalists, as well as with US soldiers? Secondly, Merton (I think in a letter to Dorothy Day) mentioned that he would rather be killed than commit violence, even in his own defense, but that he was not a pacifist. Does this fit with you? Can you support a war you would not fight in? Seems difficult to me, but I would like to hear a defense of it, if you do feel that way. (By the way, I met you once. I was your driver/host when you were on the Hour of Power plugging The Brother of Jesus.)

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Issac:

I can conceive of seeing a war like WWII as a lesser of several evils, though I do not think war should ever be glorified. There have however been no wars of this sort in my lifetime so far as I can see, that meet the criteria of 'just war' theory.

I have however been on record as saying there are many things worth dying for, but few if anything worth killing for when you are a follower of Jesus. After all, love your enemies can't be construed to ever mean 'love them to death at the point of a gun'. "Thou shalt not kill/murder" is after all a commandment even in the OT.

I agree with Merton that I personally would much rather suffer violence than being guilty of the sin of perpetrating it. And of course there are various levels and degrees of violence. For example, criminals can be disabled without being killed in most cases. These are complex matters, and Neibuhr's classic study is one I think highly of.

And to Q, I understand the distinction you want to make in regard to counter-terrorism. You may want to call it a lesser evil, but it is still evil.



Michael said...

It seems to me that the act of counterterrorism is more an act of law enforcement than of vengeance although I admit the line can be blurred. After all, just in the US alone we expect the police to go after those who have committed crimes. This is not necessarily a vengeful act more than a counteract against a violation of the law to restore order.

So how should the US respond to a direct attack? By offering money if they'll stop? This may not be your implication, but addressing the needs of the people in Iraq is being answered by those we are fighting against with kidnappings and beheadings. Notice that it is civilian relief workers and contractors who are being kidnapped and murdered.

I wish I had the answers, of course, and I would wish almost anything else besides having the blood of another on my hands. However, Paul speaks of the state possessing the right to bear the sword. Is this not law enforcement about which he writes? And does it not imply more than simply within one's own borders?

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Michael:

Three things--- in the case of the response to Munich, the Israelis first killed 200 innocent Palestinians in a refuge camp in Lebanon BEFORE they went after the terrorists. There is no way you can justify this, even with a proportional response theory.

Secondly, Paul is talking about the tax police, and their right to enforce tax law, and the weapon he is referring to is the defensive one, the personal dagger, not an offensive weapon.

Thirdly, it is by now clear that Iraq had nothing to do with what happened on 9-11. Remember Osama ben Laden? He does not reside in Iraq. And by the way we found no weapons of mass destruction or any of the perpetrators of 9-11 in Iraq.



Layman said...


You wrote:

"The individual Christian will have to decide then whether being a soldier or a policeman is compatible with being a follower of someone who instituted an ethic of non-violence and forgiveness. In my case, I don't think it is compatible."

Are you suggesting that being a police officer is incompatible with being a Christian because a police officer may be expected to employ violence to protect others?


Ben Witherington said...

I am saying that the use of violence to solve human problems is always problematic, and regularly involves sin because of it. Of course there are police roles that do not involve violence, many of them. I am simply saying that one needs to know that any such profession presents the Christian with serious ethical dilemmas.



Michael said...

So then a weapon used in defense cannot be said to become a weapon of offense by the inherent nature of the defense? And Paul's reference to "sword" in Romans 13 does not refer exclusively to taxes but also to "customs", "fear" (which I read as "respect"), and "honor". And I also see the sword as referring to the power and authority of the government that bears this sword of "authority" and not an individual weapon such as a dagger.

With all due respect, I think you are being unfair to the Israelis in their response after Munich and other subsequent attacks against innocent civilians. You insinuate that they simply slaughtered 200 innocent persons without acknowledging the reality that these terrorists, these "cowards" - to use your word - hide amongst civilians. It makes for great press when the inevitable counter-strike comes.

Sensational media coverage is as much a weapon for terrorists as any other. A terrorist attack against a school or shopping mall or innocent athletes (hardly offensive military targets)gets honorable mention, but an Israeli retaliatory response gets headlines and UN condemnation.

As for your dig about Iraq and WMD, I can only say that these weapons irrefutably existed at one time, and then they suddenly no longer seemed to exist. There have been reports that suggested that Saddam had time to move these weapons into Syria and, possibly, Iran. You demand proof of existence of these weapons? I demand proof of their destruction.

Yes, I remember bin-Laden all too well. I also distinctly remember Saddam paying from $25,000.00 to $50,000.00 to families of Palestinian suicide bombers.

It grieves me that this line of thought consistently gives the Palestinians and other "innocents" an alibi but continually insists that Israel and the US have brought all this misery upon themselves and that these murderers have been misunderstood and mistreated so much so that they have no other alternative but to murder women and children so that the world can see the grave injustices done them.

Ben Witherington said...

Wow Michael, what an argument.

Lets see if we can unpack this a bit. First of all, there can be no justification for killing any refugees in any camps whether perpetrated by the Israelis or anyone else. This is just murder, pure and simple. It is not in any way a proper response to an act of terrorism by others, even if they are of the same ethnic group.

And as for your argument that there WERE weapons of mass destruction in Iraq you have now contradicted the admission of the Defense Department, as well as the President that "there were errors in our intelligence on this matter".

As for Rom. 13, I would suggest you read what my commentary on Romans says on this matter. There are indeed two different sorts of weapons, and Paul here refers to the little dagger which served about the same purpose as the modern carrying of a can of mace! This text in no way could ever be said to endorse weapons like bombs, grenades etc.

No, I don't think I am being in anyway unfair to the Israelis. I have spent time in Israel watching what they have done to Bethlehem and the Christians there. That wall is about as bad an ethical decision as the Berlin wall, and what it is accomplishing is just the opposite of what it is said to be intended to do. The majority of Christian Palestinians there have now left or are trying to leave, leaving the Moslems there in charge, and in particular the more radical ones. The same story is true in Nazareth, a town that in the 1950s was overwhelmingly Christian in character.

I do not approve of the actions of either the Palestinian Moslems who use violence and terrorism nor the indiscriminant responses of the Israelis either. At the very least one should attack the persons who actually attacked you, not innocent bystanders.



Michael said...


I certainly cannot argue against anything you've said. Killing is killing is "a rose by any other name". It just seems to me that these terrorists don't want any help, especially from the west. Their stated purpose, from the likes of bin-Laden and the new Iranian president and others, is to simply destroy the west and Israel. This state of mind cannot be justified anymore than indiscriminate retaliation. However, in my mind justice requires enforcement, and enforcement of justice often requires a strong hand.

Of course, I also look at our own society and see with eyes too clear that everything they seem to curse about us is true; ie, pornography, sexual promiscuity, greed, worldly lust. Sometimes it is hard to accept, however, that even though they may be essentially correct, their methods cannot be ignored.

I wish I could quote the source that suggested that these WMD's simply disappeared without explanation, but I freely admit that I'm just too tired to search it out this evening. Yes, the DoD admits intelligence errors, but I do not recall anyone admitting a complete blunder.

Thank you for your insight and provocative post. I've enjoyed the exchange.

Grace and Peace.