Movie Reflection: Munich

The movie Munich starts with a depiction of the events of September 5th,1972, where members of the Black September organization took eleven Israeli athletes hostage at the Munich Olympic games. Throughout the movie, scenes from the hostage situation—leading up to, and including the deaths of all eleven athletes, one German police officer, and five of the hostage-takers. However, despite the title, the vast majority of the movie focuses on a fictional version of Operation Bayonet (also known as Operation Wrath of God), and Operation Spring of Youth. Both operations included the assassination of Palestinians suspected of involvement in anti-Israel terrorist operations.1

Munich depicts Israeli high command considering possible retaliations against the Black September organization, and other related targets. Mossad, the Institute for Intelligence and Special Tasks, is depicted as assembling a group of Israelis to kill eleven people. This group, lead by the character Avner, is then distanced from Mossad – connected only through the funds placed in a Swiss Bank for their use, and generally left to their own devices. Using the money in the bank, the group hunts down and kills several targets related to the Black September organization. While the movie creates a fictional account, and uses artistic license to fill in the unknowns, the actual events of Operation Bayonet and Operation Spring of Youth were relatively similar in result: the assassinations of a large number of high-ranking Palestinian leaders in Black September and other organizations.2 The one notable difference is the absence of the Lillehammer affair, in which a Bayonet group killed a man mistakenly identified as Ali Hassan Salameh, and were apprehended by local Norwegian police authorities.3
As the mission is being outlined to Avner in the movie, the Mossad contact notes that the difficult part won’t be killing the targets, but rather “not getting caught.” This gently reminds the audience of the illegality of the operation – there was no coordination with local authorities, no attempts to arrest and bring the targets to a recognized court, but rather the assassination of Mossad’s targets. Avner questions the justice of the operation near the end of the movie, objecting to the lack of proof that the men he was sent to kill were guilty – the Mossad contact can only provide his word on the existence of evidence.

The targeted killings, or assassinations, portrayed in the movie were illegal in a variety of ways. First, they violated the sovereignty of the nations in which the targets were assassinated – according to the Peace of Westphalia, the basis of current international law, each nation-state is supposed to be the sole governmental actor within its territory.4 This is compounded by the fact that, with the exception of Operation Spring of Youth in Lebanon, all of the assassinations took place in countries that were friendly to Israeli. While a legal operation would have coordinated with the authorities in each country to arrange the arrest and extradition of wanted criminals (in this case the suspected terrorists), no such process was included in the Mossad killings.

Secondly, there was no process of justice. One precedent for Operation Bayonet was the abduction of Adolf Eichmann by Mossad – in his case, he was brought to trial at an Israeli court. The targets of the events depicted in the movie Munich enjoyed no such trial. Furthermore, they were killed, a punishment extremely rare in Israel – only the aforementioned Eichmann has been executed by the Israeli state.5
While these complains could be understood with regards to the lack of anti-terrorist infrastructure back in the time period, currently there is an elaborate structure in place to legally arrest and try suspected terrorists. However, Mossad apparently has continued the practice of unilaterally assassinating targets, as seen in the recent death of Mahmoud al-Mahmoud, widely believed to be the work of Mossad agents. Mahmoud al-Mahmoud was smothered to death in Dubai this January, with no coordination with Dubai authorities, and no process of justice. Dubai police suspect Israel, and evidence links to Israel. In addition to outrage in Dubai, other countries have been displeased with the forgery of their national passports by Mahmoud’s assassins.
Israel’s killings are obviously illegal by international law. But are they justified? After all, they are subject to similarly illegal attacks by Palestinian militant groups. The attacks portrayed in Munich were 11 illegal Black September deaths for 11 illegal Israeli athlete deaths. Furthermore, the Israeli athletes were civilians, while the members of Black September—while living as civilians—were part of a militant organization.
How do the killings by Mossad compare to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? The Sydney Morning Herald points out that the American military is killing terrorist suspects without trial almost daily in Afghanistan, and yet complains do not exist in a way similar to the Mahmoud killing. Is the difference the U.S. government’s control of the press? Barnett and Reynolds note that after the September 11th attacks, the message by CNN was consistent with the position of the government: “That war was inevitable and necessary to combat the attacks,….”6 Alternatively, did the Mahmoud killing create the news effect it did due to timeliness (the attack was something difference and new), prominence (Mahmoud was an important figure), and other factors that tie into newsworthiness.7 Was the Mahmoud killing more publicized, but in practice no different than the continual killings in Afghanistan, or the continual attacks by Palestinian militants? The difference does not matter, however. Both the actions of the U.S. and Israel answer to the same system of international law. In the setting of war, combatants can be shot at and killed – generally speaking. But in the setting of society – whether it is France, Italy, or the Emirate of Dubai, a legal process exists, and must be utilized. People suspected of involvement in terrorist activities must be found guilty by judicial process, not killed on the whims of a government. Countries need to cooperate with the authorities in the country where a suspect is to be apprehended, not surreptitiously murder individuals without the consent of a nation’s sovereign government.
But the question still remains – legal or illegal, are these killings justified? Outside of the legal process, this becomes merely a question of morals, not a question of law. My opinion, according to my morals, is that such retaliation is not justified. Israel and American have money and power far in excess of their foes. While their enemies, be they Black September or Al-Quada, may choose unscrupulous means to make up for this difference in power, it is the responsibility of the more powerful combatant to restrain his or herself, and use that money and that power to end the conflict in accordance with internationally recognized values. Unlike organizations such as Black September, the U.S. and Israel have options. Perhaps a few more Americans or a few more Israelis will die because the nations chose to play by the rules, but that is a low cost compared to the benefit of avoiding escalation, which saves lives all around. It is important to remember that all humans are equal, whether they are civilians or soldiers, terrorists or citizens of the United States. The death of an enemy is still a death, and is always reprehensible.

Works Cited:

1Calahan, Alexander. 1995. “Countering Terrorism: The Israeli Response to the 1972 Munich Olympic Massacre and the Development of Independent Covert Action Teams.” (Accessed March 9th 2010)

2 Ibid.

3Mellgren, Doug. 2000. “Norway Solves Riddle of Mossad Killing.” The Guardian. (Accessed March 9th, 2010)

4All references to international law drawn from Global Studies classes, particularly Violence, Conflict, and Human Rights.

5Rapps, Dennis, Robert Weinberg, Nathan Lewin. (Accessed March 9th, 2010)

6Barnett, Brook and Amy Reynolds. Terrorism and the Press: An uneasy relationship. (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2009), 62.

7 Cybercollege. 2009. “Twelve Factors in Newsworthiness.” (Accessed March 9th, 2010.)

(Note: Additional material was drawn from Global Studies classes, particularly the “Conflict, Violence, and Human Rights” class. Unsure how to cite.)