The Blog

Munich Syndrome

Are George Jonas's "Vengeance" and Steven Spielberg's "Munich" really soft on terrorism?

11:00 PM, Jan 5, 2006 • By SONNY BUNCH
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

AT THE 1972 OLYMPICS, 11 Israeli athletes were murdered in cold blood by Palestinian terrorists. As the rest of the world continued playing their games, Israel mourned. In the coming years Israel would set out to kill those responsible for the attacks and individuals who would plan, supply, and commit such atrocities in the future.

Steven Spielberg's Munich and George Jonas's Vengeance, the book on which it is based, are purportedly accounts of the Israeli hit team that set out to conduct these executions. The story of those two works is also countered by a new book, Striking Back by Aaron Klein, a correspondent for Time magazine and a captain in the Israeli Defense Force's intelligence unit. And although the two sides of the story seem to conflict, they are, at a deeper level, of a piece.

FIRST PUBLISHED in May, 1984, Vengeance caused immediate controversy. The book, which reads more like a novel than a historical or journalistic work, relies on "Avner," a single, pseudonymous source for its narrative. While Jonas may have trusted his source, it is ultimately up to the reader to decide if Avner should be believed. Portions of the book were labeled as either false or unprovable by both the New York Times and Maclean's magazine.

Whether or not all the specifics of Vengeance are true, one thing can certainly be said about it: Vengeance is not a piece of mindless moral relativism. In fact, the author explicitly denounces moral relativism in his epilogue. "One can," Jonas writes, "in terms of moral justification, distinguish between counter-terrorism and terrorism in the same way one distinguishes between acts of war and war crimes. There are standards; terrorism is on the wrong side of them; counter-terrorism is not."

That is not to say that "Avner" feels nothing about killing Palestinian terrorists. Indeed, in Vengeance he and the rest of the Israeli team are, for the most part, happy with their work. The team was "for the first time in millennia [making] slaughtering Jewish men, women and children an expensive proposition. Avner saw nothing wrong with that. If anything, he continued to be proud of being one of the swords that cut off the hands of the enemies of Israel." However, the deeper question raised by Vengeance is whether or not the Israeli squads were doing any long-term good. "[B]eyond vengeance, their mission was supposed to weaken and diminish anti-Israel terror in the world. Not stop it all together . . . but at least slow it down," Jonas writes. And at the end of the day, Avner comes to the conclusion that his mission did not cause terrorists to hit the brakes.

This is a country mile from moral relativism.

NONETHELESS, Aaron Klein disagrees with Avner's conclusion. For Striking Back Klein interviewed more than 50 current and ex-Mossad agents about the post-Munich attacks. And he agrees with Jonas that deterrence was at least a part of the mission: "The Mossad's aim was to create a permanent threat in the minds of Palestinian operatives and potential inductees, a violent persuasion to cease, or shy away from, all activity on the behalf of terrorists," Klein notes.

Klein admits that it is tough to measure the efficaciousness of preemptive strikes, but says that the Mossad is certain that terrorist activities were at least hindered by the post-Munich killings. "Deterrence is something you cannot measure. Things happen because of your deterrence. You can't count the numbers because it is impossible to say who didn't do something for this specific reason, but it's there," he said in an interview.

Consider the assassination of Wadi Haddad, one of the leaders of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. "The faction under [Haddad's] command collapsed after his death," Klein reports in Striking Back. "Dry statistics indicate that the number of attacks against Israeli targets abroad plummeted with his passing. Israeli intelligence and, in particular, the Mossad, viewed them as further proof of the effectiveness of their assassination program." Or take the killing of Zuhir Mokhsan, the leader of the terrorist group A-Tzika: "Mokhsan's sudden death led to the dissolution of the A-Tzaika organization--another veritable well of terrorism gone dry."

Deterrence has its limits, however. "Deterrence helps on a tactical level," Klein said in the interview, but he added that "it doesn't solve conflicts. It won't solve the conflict between the west and extreme Islam. It helps to prevent the next terrorist attack, so you can use it."

WHICH IS THE POINT of Steven Spielberg's oft-maligned Munich. Much has been made of Spielberg's movie, with many worrying that the director sees no difference between Palestinian terrorists and Israeli soldiers. That simply isn't the case.

The film has its problems. As has been pointed out elsewhere, its devotion to reality is sorely lacking. While not a docudrama (the film opens by claiming only to be inspired by real events, not to be an actual portrayal of real events), some scenes are pure inventions of Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner. Yet, issues of factual fidelity aside, it is a misunderstanding of Munich to view the film as a work of moral equivalence.

For instance, much has been made of a scene near the beginning of the film in which photos of the Palestinian terrorists being targeted by the Mossad, and images of the dead Israeli athletes are juxtaposed. Some have suggested that this is a clear case of moral equivocation, that Spielberg is trying to imply that there is no difference between the two groups of "victims." But if anything, it seems as though Spielberg is trying to help the audience understand the motivations of the Israeli government. In actuality, he seems to be highlighting the fact that the murders at Munich forced Israel to pursue these terrorists.

On the whole, Munich is a finely-wrought character study of the effects of war on those who have to fight it--not an apologia for terrorism. By the movie's end Avner--gaunt, pale, and aged--is sleeping in a closet because he is afraid of retribution from Palestinian operatives. His fellow agents have been killed one by one and he now lives in fear, both for himself and his family.

Again, this may or may not be factually accurate. For his part, Klein says that of the 50 officers he spoke with "nobody knows some kind of figure who had remorse. And it's a close circle of people. The people who were actually involved are not a lot." One place where Klein and Spielberg would agree, however, is that, unlike the Palestinian terrorists, the Israelis took extreme lengths to ensure that innocents were not injured in their strikes. In the film, the team risks missing a target and blowing its cover to save the life of a little girl. Compare this to the Palestinian terrorists who have no problem with turning AK-47s on hogtied hostages. And then there is the deeper question of humanity: Avner understand the justness of his mission, but still struggles with the taking of life. The terrorists show no such qualms.

So even if it's inaccurate, Spielberg's characterization of a conflicted Avner is, in its own way, flattering to the Israelis. Indeed, it says more good than bad about the quality of the Israeli men who accepted the job of protecting their country by hunting down the terrorists who would do it harm. We should not want those tasked with defending us to be as remorseless as the sociopath terrorists who are so evil that they take delight in murder.

Sonny Bunch is an assistant editor at The Weekly Standard.