Charged with emotion and politics, Steven Spielberg’s Munich theatrically depicts the Mossad’s counterterrorism effort immediately following the 1972 Munich Massacre, during which the Black September Organization captured and killed eleven Israelis participating in the Munich Olympics. Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir ordered five Mossad

Munich, 2005

members to assassinate eleven Black September operatives, in direct retaliation for the eleven Israelis killed (www.fas.org). Munich tells the story of Avner, the appointed leader of this Mossad team. Avner was in the fight of his life against terrorism, but counterterrorism is humanized in this film, with a down-to-earth character that most viewers could relate to in at least a few ways. This helps provide an answer to the question of whether or not this film is fair, with Bloody Sunday as a comparison. Both films clearly express the sentiments of primarily one side of a conflict. Production techniques of Munich and Bloody Sunday vary greatly, but both convey the overwhelming, relentless fear that results from terrorism, though perhaps without actually educating the audience.

Bloody Sunday was an unbalanced account of the events that unfolded in 1972 in Ireland, with the Catholics being portrayed as people who love and defend civil rights and the Protestants being portrayed as people who hurt and kill ruthlessly. Similarly, Munich spent a lot of time developing Israeli characters into people who are sympathetic but are forced to violently avenge their ethnic group. Interestingly, both Bloody Sunday and Munich take the side of a counterterrorism effort. Both films, to justify the actions of the Catholics and the Israelis, claim sort of a “they started it” stance on the conflicts. Although Munich sided with the Israelis in the conflict, actual Mossad agents who viewed the film were not satisfied with its production.

The production techniques of Bloody Sunday and Munich contrasted significantly, with the former using a “mockumentary” style to create a sense of utter reality and the latter using a very familiar thriller-drama style. Unlike Bloody Sunday, Munich was not intended to seem authentic at all. In fact, Mossad agent Yonatan, who participated in the assassinations reenacted in this film, criticized its production. He said that any authentic footage falsely creates the impression that the film is fact, even though a spokesman for Steven Spielberg said that the film was not meant to be an authentic documentary (www.isracast.com). If Munich had a documentary component to it, the Mossad would likely be even more critical of the film, since a Hollywood action-packed drama created for entertainment was thoroughly attacked. From the perspective of Mossad agents who actually participated in this operative following the Munich Massacre, Munich does not educate its audience about the event.

Mossad officials who viewed this film felt that this portrayal was in no way similar to what had actually occurred. For example, agent Yonatan said, “I never asked myself, like Avner in the movie, if I was doing the right thing. Our mission was clear and self-evident.” In the film, Avner and the other agents dealt with much hesitation, and after they had carried out an assassination, remorse. The hesitation had almost made them seem inept at being terrorist operatives, which contrasts greatly with the confidence with which Yonatan operated. Additionally, Yonatan stated, “it is preposterous that a Mossad agent would be told that he is on his own, the way the Mossad chief tells Avner in the movie.” Taken together, these misconceptions that the film creates suggest that any normal person can be pushed into terror and, no matter how nervous, forced to operate on his/her own. Yonatan also expressed concern over the way the film implies that violence begets violence, but does not take into account the consequences of simply standing still after a terrorist attack. From Yonatan’s perspective, there is no other option besides fighting fire with fire in this case, because, specifically, the Palestinians could have thought that Israelis were weak and could have later executed even worse attacks (www.isracast.com). From the perspective of Mossad agents, Munich does not even begin to educate the audience about this terror conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Instead, the films, both Munich and Bloody Sunday, seem to generate fear in the audience in order to enhance support for one side or for counterterrorism efforts in general, such as the American “War on Terror”.

The inevitability of each violent, horrific event presented in both Bloody Sunday and Munich both prompted fear in the audience and also created a sense of support for counterterrorist efforts through mesmerizing theatrical portrayals. Fear, then, is the oxygen of both terrorism and counterterrorism. In fact, Zbigniew Brzezinski of the Washington Post explains, “fear obscures reason, intensifies emotions and makes it easier for demagogic politicians to mobilize the public on behalf of the policies they want to pursue. Such fear-mongering, reinforced by security entrepreneurs, the mass media and the entertainment industry, generates its own momentum. The terror entrepreneurs…are necessarily engaged in competition to justify their existence. Hence their task is to convince the public that it faces new threats. That puts a premium on the presentation of credible scenarios of ever-more-horrifying acts of violence” (www.washingtonpost.com).  The entertainment industry, like the press, can contribute to attempts to justify counterterrorist acts. Thus, a terrorist organization achieves its goal when fear is generated from media and the entertainment industry, and counterterrorist movements of all kinds gain support and therefore achieve their goal as well. Munich suggests that, though brutal and difficult, retaliation was a necessary way to respond to terrorist attacks. There is a message in the film that violence leads to more violence, but the cycle seems inevitable and no alternative is offered. Avner becomes increasingly hopeless as the fear, paranoia and guilt overwhelm him completely. The psychological torment that he suffers is clearly stifling, and it depicts terrorism as a relentless force that never takes a break. This instills fear in the audience and creates empathy for Avner. With this fear and empathy, politicians can mobilize citizens of any country toward a fight against virtually anyone deemed the enemy. In Bloody Sunday, the handing of the guns to the IRA seemed justifiable after viewing the film with empathy and fear on behalf of the Catholics. Similarly, the “War on Terror” initiated by America following September 11th, 2001, seemed to be a justified course of action, given the fear, empathy and patriotism that surged through the nation at that time. George Bush also limited American citizens, along with the rest of the world, to two choices: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists” (Barnett & Reynolds, 48).

According to social psychologist Philip Zimbardo in his book The Lucifer Effect, this dichotomy presented to us by authority figures creates a toxic social situation in which violence can be justified, just as toxic social situations in the Middle East create suicide bombers and ruthless terrorists out of ordinary people. “The carefully researched portraits of several of the 9/11 terrorists by the reporter Terry McDermott in Perfect Soldiers underscores just how ordinary these men were in their everyday lives” (Zimbardo, 293). Just as blind obedience to authority figures can lead an ordinary person to kill thousands on 9/11, blind obedience to the media that instill fear at the government’s command can instigate support for more violence in counterterrorism efforts. But will these toxic situations always take control and prompt ordinary people to hurt others, and do films such as Munich perpetuate the toxicity of fear?

Markela, a student at the American College of Greece, says, “we cannot deny that each film teaches the audience something about terrorism, but the viewer must be in a position to identify the flaws and exaggerations he sees… [The films] should not be regarded as absolute truths…” This is one of the ways Dr. Zimbardo suggests we can resist evil and toxic situational forces. Simply being aware that authority figures or media can be challenged can reduce the temptation to believe anyone with power (Zimbardo, 446).

Munich, like Bloody Sunday and the American “War on Terror”, creates a fearful audience and educates very little on the reality of the conflicts at hand. The fear brought about on behalf of one side can lead to increased support for counterterrorism efforts, which are just as violent, sometimes more so, than terrorism itself. But simply being aware that authority, including governments and media, can be questioned and challenged is a step towards resisting pressure to violently retaliate to every real and perceived threat.

References

Barnett, B., & Reynolds, A. (2009). Terrorism and the Press: An Uneasy Relationship. New York, New York: Peter Lang.

Brzezinski, Zbigniew. (2007). Terrorized by ‘War on Terror’: How a Three-Word Mantra Has Undermined America. Retrieved from: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/03/23/AR2007032301613.html.

Calahan, A. B. (1995). Countering terrorism: The Israeli response to the 1972 Munich Olympic Massacre and the development of independent covert action teams. Retrieved from: http://www.fas.org/irp/eprint/calahan.htm.

Essing, D. (2006). Mossad Lambasts ‘Munich’. Retrieved from: http://www.isracast.com/transcripts/230106b_trans.htm.

Zimbardo, P. (2007). The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. New York: Random House.