- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 22, 2005

At the close of “Munich,” Steven Spielberg’s self-described “prayer for peace,” the camera pans back from a Brooklyn park. As the frame widens, the Twin Towers, then newly erected, loom across the East River. The subtext is clear: As Israel methodically struck back against Palestinian terrorists after the murder of 11 of its athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, terrorism not only wasn’t defeated; it metastasized.

To paraphrase a line that screenwriter Tony Kushner put in Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir’s mouth, a civilization willingly compromised its core values.

Through ruminative lulls and spasms of graphic, “Godfather”-like violence, “Munich” tracks a fictionalized Mossad intelligence unit, led by actor Eric Bana, as it hopscotches Western European capitals and exterminates suspected terrorist agents and financiers. With each assassination, Mr. Bana’s Avner Kauffman, a rootless German-born Israeli, grows more anxious. By the end, he is well on his way to becoming a refusenik, wondering about the validity of the evidence against his targets and, more broadly, whether resistance might really be futile.

“Munich” is a viscerally powerful film — which is why its message of moral equivalence and its despairing opinion of counterterrorism couldn’t come at a worse time.

Americans right now are being strongly encouraged by the media to conclude that their country has irretrievably degraded itself in the war on terrorism. You know the litany: Acts of torture on suspected terrorists are not exceptions — they’re official policy. The United States has no business lecturing other nations about human rights — we’ve revived the Soviet gulag system in secret Eastern European detention centers.

“Munich” fits into this narrative with retrospective symmetry. Compare contemporary America with the Jewish state, and you have interchangeable Western governments that provoke terrorism through exertions of brute power.

In one improbable yet riveting scene, Avner passes for a European communist in an exchange with a Palestinian militant who is allied with Soviet intelligence. He’s asked by Avner if “all that chalky soil and those stone huts” — Palestine — are really worth the bloodshed. The Palestinian replies that they are, that all peoples desire to be nations. The scene neatly forgets that many Palestinian jihadists desire to have another nation cease to exist.

“Munich” certainly does not propagandize for either side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s made from a Jewish perspective but maintains a scrupulous anti-heroism. Mr. Spielberg recently told Time magazine: “Tony Kushner and I and the actors did not demonize anyone in the film. We don’t demonize our targets. They’re individuals. They have families.”

This evenhandedness creates a sort of moral paralysis (and, by extension, dramatic confusion). Because it refuses to judge, “Munich” is ill-equipped to explain. It sees only a circle of violence — and then congratulates itself for opting out of the circle rather than succumbing to the illusion of eventual victory.

I wonder if Mr. Spielberg agreed with Mr. Kushner, who told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that the establishment of modern Israel was “a mistake.”

Leon Wieseltier of the New Republic astutely noticed something fundamental about “Munich.” “The film has no place in its heart for Israel,” he writes. “It cannot imagine any reason for Israel beyond the harshness of the world to the Jews.”

In its placid nonjudgmentalism, Mr. Wieseltier continues, “Munich” never musters anything more than “anti-anti-Semitism.”

Such pious progressivism is better than what you’re liable to hear in a French diplomat’s salon these days. Still, it’s somewhat surprising coming from the man who so horrifyingly dramatized the Nazi killing machine in “Schindler’s List.”

Does Mr. Spielberg prefer it when Jews are victims? If not, why does he shrink at the prospect of Jews fighting back?

“I don’t think any movie or any book or any work of art can solve the stalemate in the Middle East today,” Mr. Spielberg told Time.

Mr. Spielberg is right. About the efficaciousness of art, I mean.

But the art itself, “Munich,” is wrong: Decent nations are not perfect nations; they even may have had a hand in starting a circle of violence. Yet their capacity to stop those circles is directly related to their stomach for the imperfect administration of violence.

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