Thursday, July 22, 2010

Munich and the Ring Road to Hell

They kill one of ours. So we kill one of theirs. That's the way it works -- isn't it?

I just watched Steven Speilberg's movie Munich again. It's the film about a group of Israeli assassins taking revenge on the people (ostensibly) behind the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich.

The first time I saw the film, when it first came out, I found it exciting, poignant, and at the same time troubling. Watching it again, now with the benefit of recent efforts to think about how justice is administered, I felt sickened.

The film is a 2 hour plus meditation on a topic I discussed in a previous blog post -- the nearly insurmountable human impulse to say "They've hurt us so now we're going to hurt them." It is noteworthy that the film contains many references to the moral and legal obstacles to non-judicial retribution. For instance, at one point in the film, a member of the team of assassins points out that, "In Israel, we do not have the death penalty!" In other words, how can it make sense to carry out extrajudicial executions (assassinations) when your community's well-reasoned position is that execution (judicially killing) is unacceptable?

Another moment that jumped out at me is the point immediately after the events in Munich, when a member of the Israeli military argues for a different approach: "We've sent in the jets to bomb their military positions. That's a response!" It reminded me the degree to which the fundamental question we face is "Events have occurred ... without question, we must respond ... but what should our response be?" (viz. "The Response")

People can differ about whether Speilberg struck the right balance between thriller and morality tale in this film. The more important fact is that he made the film and it holds lessons for us today.

For instance: how are the actions of the team of assassins in "Munich," carrying out extrajudicial assassinations, different than the United States government's use of drone strikes to remotely kill our nation's enemies?

Violence is viral . . . violence begets violence.

Some years ago, I had the opportunity to visit Munich. I was driving while my friend navigated from a very simple map I had photocopied from a book. We managed to get on the ring road around the city, from which one of the main sights that can be seen is the Olympic Stadium. We had trouble figuring out where to exit to get into the city proper -- can't you read a map? you call this a map? -- and by the time we passed the Olympic Stadium the second time, tempers started to flare. We eventually made it to our hotel . . . but Munich and the Olympic Stadium have forever after, for me, stood for the proposition that going around in circles, stuck in the same rut and fighting about it, is a peculiar Hell that only humans could be capable of contriving.

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