—   The sharp point of dissent   —

Section: Middle East
4 February 2006

Munich: what Spielberg didnít tell you

In the opening titles of Steven Spielberg's new film about the Israeli operation to avenge the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre, a tapestry of placenames crawls slowly across the screen, a moment before they all fade away, leaving only the title placename: Munich. But not before you might have noticed something. In the bottom right quadrant of the screen, hidden among all the other placenames, was the word 'Lillehammer'.

In the town of Lillehammer in Norway in July 1973, Ahmed Bushiki, a Moroccan waiter, was walking home from the cinema one night with his wife, who was expecting their child. Without warning, two men ran up to him and fired thirteen bullets into him. He died on the scene. Surprisingly, the two killers later used their getaway vehicle to travel to the airport, and were thus easily intercepted by the Norwegian police. After two days of interrogation, one of the female agents cracked, leading to the arrest of all six members of the hit squad. They were Israelis, a unit of Mossad agents charged with avenging the Munich massacre. And in an attempt to assassinate Ali Hassan Salameh, they had just killed the wrong man.

Much of the publicity surrounding Spielberg's movie concentrates on its putative 'moral complexity'. The film is thought to be a meditation on revenge and justice, and the thorny ethical issues involved in not letting slaughter go unavenged but doing so outside of the rule of law. One would think therefore that the Lillehammer incident - in which innocent people died, just as in Munich - would be a good place to start. Why was it excluded completely from Spielberg's film?

The practicalities of plot are one explanation. The Lillehammer assassins were tried in Oslo and subsequently thrown in jail, which is of course a factual inconvenience that the narrative could never recover from. But the very fact that Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner had to exclude the centrepiece of the controversy undermines the credibility of their claim to have examined the matter in a balanced manner. In short, cumbersome facts are not their fault: but when you're trying to portray a complex subject in serious way, you can't just sail around facts and pretend they are not there. The trouble with a film that has to open with the disclaimer 'based on real events'[1] is that in the end it loses all credibilty because the audience can never know which parts of the film are factual and which parts are simply contrived or embellished - to say nothing of what is excluded.

The moral complexities of extrajudicial retribution are certainly worth thinking about. (Perhaps the example par excellence is the 1921 assassination in Germany of the Turkish Interior Minister Talaat Pasha, who had masterminded the genocide of over one million Armenians. The man who stepped up to him on the street and fired a bullet into his head - Soghomon Tehlirian - was well-motivated: the Turks had raped his sisters, shot his mother, and split his brother's skull open with an axe. Despite some limp-wristed international efforts to bring the perpetrators to justice, it was clear to Tehlirian and others that there would be no justice other than that which they were to seek out themselves.[2]) But for a true moral examination of the Munich avengers - one that is investigative, not dramatic - the film to see is Golda's List[3], a documentary released in 2000, directed by Emmanuel François. The film not only chronicles the assassinations (yes, Ehud Barak himself wore a skirt as part of his disguise during the Beirut raid - just like the movie), but raises a rather more disturbing issue. Since the number of names on 'Golda's list' was never known, it is not quite clear when the operation came to a close. Individuals said to have a connection with Munich were still being assassinated as late as June 1992 (Atef Bseisso, in Paris); and conversely some Palestinians killed (such as the intellectual Basil al-Khobeisi, also in Paris) had no connection at all with Black September. More importantly, not only were the families of Munich's victims denied the satisfaction of due process of justice (and some openly complain about this fact in François' documentary), but the absence of due process led to the death of another innocent (in Lillehammer). Worst of all, since the criteria for who was placed on the hit list was kept secret, the potential for abuse of such power is obvious. 'Every civilisation finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values' - this is the justification Kushner places in the mouth of Golda Meir before she dispatches her hit squads. Never mind the bad English: it's just bad rationalizing.

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1 The exploitative Australian horror film Wolf Creek opens with a similar line; and A Beautiful Mind is 'based on events in the life of John Nash' [my emphasis], a cumbersome locution that should make any cinemagoer suspicious.
2 See Samantha Power. 'A problem from Hell': America and the Age of Genocide, Basic Books, 2002, p. 1-3
3 'Golda's List', Produced by Sunset Presse, France 3, Time TV, 2000, Produced by Arnaud Hamelin, Emmanuel François