The Lessons of Munich

How should free societies deal with terrorism? Steven Spielberg’s Munich, a film about Israel’s response to the terrorist killings at the 1972 Munich Olympics, gets to the heart of the question. An advance screening of the film hosted by Foreign Policy and Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs earlier this month brought together Kathleen Kennedy, the film’s coproducer, Anne-Marie Slaughter, dean of the Woodrow Wilson School, Dennis Ross, a former top U.S. Middle East envoy, and FP’s own editor in chief, Moisés Naím.

Moiss Nam: Kathleen, the story goes that you read the book on which this movie was inspired, by George Jonas, called Vengeance, and brought it to Steven Spielberg. What drove you? What moved you?

Moiss Nam: Kathleen, the story goes that you read the book on which this movie was inspired, by George Jonas, called Vengeance, and brought it to Steven Spielberg. What drove you? What moved you?

Kathleen Kennedy, coproducer of Munich
Photos by Sameer A. Khan, courtesy of the Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University Kathleen Kennedy: My coproducer, Barry Mendel, came upon this book before both Steven and I did. I thought it was something that Steven might find interesting. Its important to understand that we dont look at things and necessarily think about the political context. Were usually looking for stories that might make interesting movies. We were obviously aware of what had happened at the Olympics in 1972, but what happened after the attack was new to us. And around 2000, we started doing research and talking to people. When 9/11 happened, Steven backed away from the project and said, I dont think I can do this. I think it will be viewed as something that looks like its exploiting the topic of terrorism. So we tabled the project for about eight or nine months. Later, we realized that perhaps it was exactly what we should be doing and was a story that needed to be told.

The other day I had a conversation with Steven, and he made a comment that he had never made to me before. He said that, for whatever reason, he felt that this was a movie that kept drawing him into it. He felt that it was a subject matter that he needed to tell. Usually the movies that hes made, hes really been the force behind making them happen. But with this, he felt it was something that was really controlling him. So, I think the power of the film is a direct reflection of that.

Nam: Dennis, you have been in the middle of the Israel-Palestine conflict under two presidents. What is your reaction to the film?

Dennis Ross: My reaction to it from the beginning was much more about terror and the responses to terror, and much less about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While it will be emotional to many Israelis and Palestinians, you look at the demographics of both peoples, and youll find Munich is ancient history for them. So, it doesnt have an immediate relevance for them per se. But it does have a relevance in terms of highlighting what happens when youre confronted with a horrific act of terror and you have to do something about it.

Its a movie that suggests that you have to respondits understandable that you respondbut when you respond, youre actually confronted with real dilemmas. And I saw dilemmas built in. The choices are hard, and sometimes you pick the best of the bad alternatives. And it has an effect on the people who do it. I thought that was actually a very interesting story to tell.

Nam: Yes, and in fact Steven Spielberg has said that a response to a response does not solve anything. It just creates a perpetual motion machine of hatred and revenge.

Dennis Ross, former Middle East envoy Ross: I think that is a perspective that he brings to bear. But I dont think that every action is morally equivalent. And I dont think the movie suggests that. In fact, I think the movie creates a context that explains why the Israelis do what they do. Look at how Munich is replayed in [the main character] Avners mind throughout the whole course of the movie.

When you respond, you really have to craft your response with care. We confront some hard choices. And not responding to terrorism sends a message that somehow its okaythat terrorists can act with impunity. Thats unacceptable. But the nature of your response also has to factor in where you go. What are the implications? Are you better off for having done it or not?

This movie provokes a discussion about targeted killingbut not whether its wrong or right. Its message is simply that we ought to talk and think about it. Personally, I dont view targeted killing as being immoral. I think there are scenarios that I can construct where, in fact, its highly moral to kill because you are saving people when you do it. The questions to ask are: Is it practical? Are you better off? And how do you come to a conclusion? I think thats a really useful discussion to have.

Nam: Anne-Marie, Dennis brings a very pragmatic perspective. Whats your reaction to the idea that targeted killings can be justified and perhaps moral?

Anne Marie Slaughter, dean of the Woodrow Wilson School Anne-Marie Slaughter: I watched the movie on one level as a lawyer who has thought about a lot of these issues. But its impossible not to watch this movie in terms of the deeper message its sending about what violence ultimately does to a society and to the individuals within it. On the targeted killings issue, what kept running through my mind was the parallels to the way were trying to fight terror today, and the initial response to Sept. 11, 2001, which of course was Afghanistan, which was a conventional war.

Early on in the movie, you heard the five men say, Well, wait a minute. You know, how can we do this? And then someone says, Its a war. You know, we can do this. On the legal issue you have to say its a war, because if its not a war, then its murder. Avner [who is charged with assassinating the Palestinians behind the Munich killings] asks at the end, Is this murder? No, if its a war, its not murder. And yet, at the end, Avner himself isnt satisfied with that explanation. He comes back to saying, we have to do this not as a war, but within the legal system. There has to be evidence. Am I killing innocents? But more generally, we have to be able to explain it to the world, and we can have the conversation within the society. We have to come back to doing this through law.

The film raises those issues in an incredibly dramatic way. But the overriding message that came through to me was the drama of both the Palestinian terrorists talking about needing a home, and the Jews talking about having to have a home. Avners final conversation with his mother was that we had to have a home. And yet the end of the film, we see Avners ability to enjoy his own home and the most basic domestic comforts has been destroyed. So, in the search for the grand home, the actual home is gone. And that is the metaphor for what can happen to us as a society responding to whats been done to us. We can lose the very values that were fighting for.

Moiss Nam, editor in chief of FP Nam: There is a point in the movie in which one of the Palestinians says, You European Reds think this is about a larger revolution, but in fact, we dont care about your revolutions. We dont care about your ideas. What we want is a nation. What we want is a home. Its important to note how nationalism was very present and God was not. A movie depicting the world today would have religion as a greater force than nation.

Ross: There is an element here that is fundamental to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The conflict is two national movements competing for the same space. What makes it a tragedy is that they both have a claim. What makes it a tragedy is that they both can be right. And this issue of home is more basic than anything else. It goes to the heart of identity. Our responses have to be consistent with who we are, so we dont become who it is we are going after. Thats the essence of not giving up our values.

Kennedy: The boy that plays Paulo, the Palestinian who steps out onto the balcony in the mask, the famous iconic image, is Lebanese. I remember standing on the set one day talking to him and he had been raised in a refugee camp for 12 years and, at the time that we had cast him in the movie, he was living in Warsaw. And I said, Where are you from? Where do you live? And he said, I have no idea. He said, I dont have any sense of a nation that I belong to. I suppose that I am Lebanese. Maybe Im Palestinian. I dont know who I am. I said, Well when did you get to Poland? He said, I moved there a year ago and Im thinking maybe Ill go to London. And he was literally just kind of drifting around. Hes about 23 years old now.

Nam: Dennis, how is this movie going to be seen in the Arab world?

Ross: I hesitate to make a prediction, but I think that there will probably be a degree of surprise. If you use the word Munich in the Arab world, they immediately assume Arabs will be portrayed as bloodthirsty terrorists who care about nothing but killing people. And they think that theres an image of them already that exists throughout the rest of the world which has only been cemented over the last few years. When Arabs see this film, they will see a movie that doesnt create a caricature. But they will not want to embrace it. After all, this is a movie that is told through the perspective of Israeli eyes. The debate that goes on is entirely an internal Israeli one. So Arabs will say that its not really that relevant to us. But there will be a general sense that its a more serious movie than they thought it was going to be.

Kennedy: I was in London recently and we brought in some of the sub-distributors out of Dubai, Egypt, Lebanon, parts of North Africa, to view the film. And the reaction was much as Dennis described. I think they were surprised. I think they expected to see something quite different. And they were intrigued with the notion of what distribution might be like in the Middle East. One of the issues that we are going to face is censorship. So it may not be seen until its released on DVD. Theres certainly a lot of piracy, but whats interesting is that theres not really infrastructure for doing Arabic dubbing or a lot of subtitling. So that is something that we focused very carefully on doing through the movie. So even if there is piracy of the film, I think once it is released with either Arabic subtitling or dubbing, then there is the potential it will be seen by a broader audience.

Audience member: This movie clearly states that it is inspired by real events and is not a documentary. But in producing it did you consider balance, in terms of a very controversial issue? Did you have a Palestinian consultant for the movie, for example?

Kennedy: Yes, we did have a Palestinian consultant. And we spent an enormous amount of time talking about being balanced. The difficulty in telling a story like this is it is a story that is from an Israeli point of view. It is what happened historically to 11 Israeli athletes at Munich. We explored and humanized the Palestinian point of view by going into the lives of each of the people that were killed by the Israeli team. Its true that it was not something we explored with a back story. We did not know a great deal about them. We only knew the act and what happened at Munich. And, yes, youre right, that is the story that did frame the movie we were making and the story we were telling. I do feel that we spent an enormous amount of time and effort in exploring a fair and balanced look at the Palestinians that were involved in the story.

Slaughter: One of the things that was very striking that I dont think Americans see nearly enough of are depictions of Palestinians such as the first two who were killed. One had translated Arabian Nights into Italian and the other was a very cultivated Palestinian living in Paris. But the other point I would make is, one of the big themes in the movie is the way in which the violence dehumanized the Israelis. And you see that, of course, when Avner says, At first it was really hard. But now I can get up and kill without any question.

Nam: This is a movie that is going to linger, that is going to stay with us. Steven Spielberg said that this movie is a prayer for peace. And I think its a wonderful, wonderful metaphor and in many ways we have all been praying for peace.

This conversation is adapted from a Dec. 14, 2005, panel discussion (transcript here) attended by 600 policymakers, journalists, and academics in Washington, D.C. It was part of the International Agenda event series, a collaboration between the Woodrow Wilson School and FP that is dedicated to stirring debate and developing solutions to pressing global policy problems.

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