Munich Reflection

“Suffering thousands of years of hatred doesn’t make you decent. But we’re supposed to be righteous. That’s a beautiful thing. That’s Jewish. That’s what I knew, that’s what I was taught and I’m losing it. I lose that and that’s everything. That’s my soul” (Munich 2005). Robert, a character in Steven Spielberg’s 2005 film Munich, expounds on the ethical dilemma that he and his fellow Israeli’s are confronted with. He realizes what must be done for his country, but cannot come to terms with it ethically. If an action, such as targeted killing, may save the lives of thousands of innocent people, is it worth the violation of one’s morals?

Munich tells the story of the five men selected by the Israeli government to assassinate members of the Black September terrorists who killed 13 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Mossad, the national intelligence agency of Israel, played an integral role in the assassinations of the Palestinian members of Black September. The Israeli agents were covertly contracted by Mossad to complete this mission. Avner, the group’s leader, is told by his handler, “We deposit money from a fund that doesn’t exist into a box we don’t know about in a bank we’ve never set foot in. We can’t help you because we never heard of you before” (Munich 2005). The Mossad cut all ties with the men in order to distance themselves; however, they financed the entire operation.

In accordance with international law, there are instances when the practice of targeted killings is lawful. However, author Nils Melzer points out that “targeted killing not directed against a legitimate military target remains subject to the law enforcement paradigm”. In the case of Munich, the agents in the film practiced target killings against individuals outside a legitimate military target. At the time of the killings, the members of Black September were civilians. This violates the United Nation’s concept of civilian versus combatants (Melzer). While the Israeli’s actions may have been justified, they were in violation of international law which makes their actions illegal.

When a nation practices targeted killing, they must factor in the consequences. They will likely face retaliation, they may be in violation of international law, they face ethical dilemmas, etc. But is some cases, the outcome may warrant the potential risks. “Fighting terror is like fighting car accidents: one can count the casualties but not those whose lives were spared by prevention. Hundreds, if not thousands, of Israelis go about their lives without knowing that they are unhurt because their murderers met their fate before they got the chance to carry out their diabolical missions” (Luft). When the use of targeted killings can save the lives of hundreds of innocent civilian lives in a nation, than a nation is liable to do what is must to counter terrorism. In Munich, the five Israeli agents make a point to avoid the loss of innocent lives. They know their targets, the members of Black September, and periodically eliminate them. In doing so, they send an important message to Black September and other similar terrorist organizations.

More recently, the Israeli government’s alleged practice of target killing has come into international focus. The Israel Foerign Minister Avigdor Lieberman would neither confirm nor deny whether the Mossad had a role in the assassination of Mahmous al-Mabhouh, a Hamas leader. Jim Krane, the author of the book City of Gold, said, “If Israel did authorize the hit, it either found Mabhouh’s elimination worth the damage to its relationship with Dubai, or the hit squad made a big mistake.” If we are to believe that the Israeli government was behind the assassination, and evidence points directly to them, then the government clearly felt the result was worth the potential risk. In killing al-Mabhouh, they severed ties with many nations. Those in power in Israel clearly felt that this assassination was necessary in order to keep their country safe.

I recently spoke to one of my pen pals, Emily Flanigan, about this issue. Emily has been working in El Salvador for over a year as a member of the Peace Corps. She majored in international relations at Northern Arizona University, so I thought she could bring in an interesting perspective. She saw the film a few years ago when it came out in theaters.

“I think that the state should always approach things in a legal matter. They have the responsibility to the people and other countries to go about things in a diplomatic way, if not they are acting in terrorism as well. In the case of Munich people felt that the violence and actions against the terrorist were justified but if each government took matters into their own hands and didn’t go about things in the correct manner countries would constantly be attacking each other. There would be no notion of civilization since the government would be secretly deciding the will of the people without going through the correct democratic channels. The values of the nation would also go down significantly.”

Emily’s comments really made me think. While watching the film, I sympathized with Israel. I thought that the actions of Mossad were justified after such a heinous act had been committed against their county. A nation should have the right to defend its citizens, but at what cost? If each nation that has been attacked retaliates in some way, that creates a circle of violence. What distinguishes one country’s act of terrorism from another’s? An act of terrorism in one country is justice to the opposing nation.

“Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values” (Munich 2005). The Israeli Prime Minister Golda Mier makes this statement early in the film, following the attacks at the Munich Olympics. Mier, and other Israeli prime ministers, have confronted with a profound ethical dilemma. Can they permit targeted killing by members of their own government in order to protect the citizens of their country? The end of the film portrays the guilt that Avner, one of the sole survivors of the original team, will have to suffer with for the rest of his life. As Robert states in the film, those involved may feel like that are losing a part of their souls; however, they save the lives of countless Israelis in the process. Meir and the members of Mossad, perhaps at great cost to personal values, did what they believed they had to in order to keep their country safe. If there was no counter action against terrorists, that would give them the message of submission. However, in doing so, they are only perpetuating the circle of violence.

Works Cited

Krane, Jim. City of Gold: Dubai and the Dream of Capitalism. New York: St. Martin’s, 2009. Print.

Luft, Gal. “The Logic of Israeli’s Targeted Killings.” The Middle East Quarterly (2003): 3-13. Print.

Melzer, Nils. “Targeted Killings in International Law”. Oxford Press. 2009.

Spielberg, Stephen. Munich. Dreamworks SKG, 2005.

The United Nations. Extra-Judicial Killings. 2 June 2010. Web. <>.

Worth, Robert F. “New Hints of Skulduggery in Hamas Killing.” The New York Times 16 Feb. 2010. Print.