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Revenge: a cost benefit analysis

Fri, May 19th, 2006
Posted in Commentary

Last Saturday I watched the movie Munich, Steven Spielbergs beautifully crafted drama about the massacre of Jewish athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. On Sunday, I kept the DVD an extra day and watched the movie again with my son, a history buff. On Monday, I kept thinking about the movie [so did my son as it turns out].

Its Tuesday as I begin writing this, still haunted by the tragic events mounted in a three hour piece of media formatted to fit onto my television screen. I call the movie beautiful, because as a story it is wonderfully told, brilliantly acted, and, in the end, profoundly disturbing.

The events of Munich are indisputable. Terrorists from the Palestinian group Black September take hostage and eventually murder 11 Jewish athletes competing at the Olympic Games in Munich.

And while the movie visits those events interspersed across the three hours - real time footage of Jim McKay on Wide World of Sports mixed in with actors portraying assailants as well as victims - the film really is about the events following the murders: Israels decision to hunt down those responsible.

Five men, whom Israel will officially deny exist, form a cell whose job is to find and assassinate the 11 men who are suspected by the Israeli government of being participants in the Munich massacre in some way. Eric Bana plays Avner Kaufmann, a Mossad agent, who, as the team leader, leads his team of assassins across Europe.

The initial hit in Rome is clumsy and awkward. The second, a bomb planted in a Paris apartment, is fixed with drama as the suspects child returns unexpectedly from school. The detonation is aborted only to be resumed later when the child leaves again. In this scene, your sense of compassion is focused on the innocent child, not on the father whose culpability in terror is presumed.

No children, no waiters, no citizens, Ephraim [Geoffrey Rush], the cells case officer, instructed Avner when setting up the group. And the five men go out of their way to avoid collateral deaths.

By the third and fourth assassination, the five men are an efficient team. Given unlimited financial resources by the Israeli government, Avner buys information in the dark underworld at a time when revolution is a parlor game in Europe - the African National Congress, ETA (Basque), Beider Manhoff (German), the Red Brigade (Italian), the IRA (Irish) and other notorious and lesser known liberation groups operate throughout the Continent, some openly with the quiet support of host countries and surrogate sponsors.

Avner pays $60,000 for information leading to the first kill, but, as the names on the list diminish and the difficulties increase, the price escalates. He pays $200,000 for the location of Mahmoud Hamshari, number three in Black September and the architect of the Munich massacre. They track Hamshari down in London, but the assassination is thwarted by Mahmouds protectors, presumably the CIA.

Golda Meir said, The Arabs need to learn that it is an expensive proposition to kill Jews. It is also an expensive proposition to kill Palestinians, Carl, a member of the five man cell, says sarcastically as he tallies up the cost of killing each of the men on the list.

In Munich, Golda Meir is absolute in her countrys need to exact revenge, and the viewer sympathizes completely with this action. But by the seventh assassination, Avners team is almost indistinguishable from the people they are hunting, because violence - as a means to an end - dehumanizes them as individuals. And they too become the hunted as the terrorist groups use the same tactics to identify the members of the Israeli cell and hunt them down.

Near the end of Munich, the team begins to question the benefit of their efforts when each of the men on the list they have killed is replaced with someone even more ideological and violent than their predecessor, as airplanes are hijacked, bombs are set off, and civilians massacred.

Jews are supposed to be righteous, cell member Robert tells Avner as the team diverts to Holland to exact revenge on a woman, a professional assassin, who killed Hans, another member of the team

Spielberg humanizes all the players in this drama - Jew and Palestinian, good guy and bad guy alike - as a way to show the motivation that drives each of them to act. And in the end, Munich is not about whether revenge is moral, but rather at what cost is it exacted?

Measured against the backdrop of Middle East relations today, more than thirty years after the 1972 massacre, the movie forces us to ask: is this the outcome Israel really wanted when it went after the Munich murderers? Is it what the Palestinians hoped life would be like for their people in 2006 when it tried to trade 11 Jewish athletes for 200 political prisoners in 1972, only to kill them in the end.

It is easy to transform this same cost benefit analysis to the U.S. after 9/11 - perhaps our Munich. And ask not were we right in going after the terrorists, but whether the War on Terror, five years later, with all of its manifestations, will lead us to the outcomes we are hoping for?

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