It started at the end of the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany, when a group of Arab terrorists calling themselves Black September broke into the Olympic Village Apartments and captured 11 Israeli athletes. The terrorists killed two athletes during the initial struggle and one Israeli succeeded in killing a terrorist. When the terrorists then tried to flee to Cairo with their remaining nine hostages, West German commandos rushed them at Furstenfeldbruck Airport. The ensuing gun battle ended with all the terrorists and hostages getting killed.
Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir’s subsequent response is the subject of Steven Spielberg’s controversial new movie Munich. Gathering a list of 11 Arabs who allegedly played a role in the initial abductions, Meir dispatched death squads into Europe to kill them.
Trumpeted as an Oscar contender before anyone even screened it, Munich stars Eric Bana, Geoffrey Rush and Daniel Craig, who was recently named the next James Bond. Munich has earned both praise and derision for being too even-handed.
“I’m always in favor of Israel responding strongly when it’s threatened,” Spielberg said in the Dec. 12, 2005 issue of Time. “At the same time, a response to a response doesn’t really solve anything. It just creates a perpetual-motion machine. There’s been a quagmire of blood for blood for many decades in that region. Where does it end? How can it end?”
That kind of moral and pragmatic equation of Arab terrorism with Israeli targeted killings has infuriated at least one commentator. “Worse, Munich prefers a discussion of counterterrorism to a discussion of terrorism; or it thinks that they are the same discussion,” wrote Leon Wieseltier, The New Republic’s literary editor, in that magazine’s Dec. 19, 2005 issue. “This is an opinion that only people who are not responsible for the safety of other people can hold.”
Wholly justified or not, the killings weighed heavily on the Israeli assassins, at least as far as Spielberg’s source material is concerned. Much of Munich is based on the 1984 book Vengeance, written by investigative reporter George Jonas in cooperation with a man known only as “Avner,” the leader of the most successful of Israel’s hit teams.
Avner’s team operated for a year with little, if any, government scrutiny. Developing their own underground contacts and intelligence, they used whatever methods were most expedient to kill their targets. Though operating under orders not to take out anyone unless they made positive identification, the hit team still ended up killing individuals not on their list—and not always by accident.
That’s the risk whenever a state bypasses its accepted justice mechanisms—jury trials, court-ordered warrants, due process and such—and skips right to summary execution. It’s a risk the Bush Administration, for instance, seems completely willing to run as it constantly invokes the specter of 9/11.
On Nov. 3, 2002, a CIA-controlled Predator unmanned aircraft fired a Hellfire missile at a car in Yemen, killing all five men inside. One of them, the actual target of the attack, was a suspected Al Qaeda leader who’d helped plan the 2000 bombing of the destroyer U.S.S. Cole.
Not much is known about the other four men, except that one of them was an American citizen suspected of involvement in an alleged Al Qaeda cell in Buffalo, New York.
In contrast to the deep secrecy surrounding the Israeli killings, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz went on CNN a few days after the Yemen operation, calling it “a very successful tactical operation” that would “keep the pressure on” terrorists everywhere.
Hopefully we won’t have to wait 30 years for someone to make a movie about that act of state-sanctioned killing. MTW
Munich runs Friday, Dec. 23 at 7:30 p.m.