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The Boys Who Cried 'Moral Equivalence'

Israeli spy-assassins track their prey in "Munich."

In a piece last week about irresponsible and wantonly unsubstantiated criticisms of Steven Spielberg's "Munich" (by some people who hadn't even seen it), I wrote that the term "moral equivalence" is the "first refuge of a con-artist." Speak of the devil, sure enough, the ever-(un)reliable Michael Medved (the guy who tried lamely to argue this time last year that Clint Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby" advocated killing disabled people) immediately stepped forward with this comment on his web site:

SPIELBERG PUSHES MORAL EQUIVALENCY December 19th 2005 It's been 45 years since Hollywood released a major motion picture about Israel, so that considerable anticipation surrounded Steven Spielberg's new project about the response to the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Unfortunately, his skillfully crafted but deeply misleading film, "Munich," spends nearly all its time showing Palestinians as victims and Israelis as implacable killers -- the terrorist slaughter that inspired the events of the movie is shown only in brief, confusing flashbacks at the very end of the film. The entire theme of the project stresses moral equivalence -- suggesting there's no difference between those who commit terrorism, and those who fight terrorists....
Fortunately, the film "Munich" actually exists in reality as an independent artifact entirely outside of Medved's head, so you'll be able to see for yourself exactly how wrong he is. He hasn't reviewed the film yet, but that's not the point; anyone who chooses to put this particular spin on "Munich" is not out to offer critical insight into the film. He just wants to stop others from seeing it. And, darn it, that's his right. (Happy Holy Days, Michael!) But his disingenuous claim that the killing of the Israeli athletes in Munich is "shown only in brief, confusing flashbacks at the very end of the film" leaves an impression that is flat wrong. Medved may indeed be confused (and I believe he is), but the flashbacks revisiting the horror in Munich -- of the Palestinian Black Septemberists breaking into the athletes' compound, killing two of them right away, binding and holding the rest at gunpoint in their apartment, negotiating with the German police, going by helicopter from the Olympic Village to the airport... -- these flashback scenes recur throughout the entire film, in roughly chronological order. At first we see most of the siege and standoff through the actual "live" ABC and foreign satellite TV coverage of the time, but then we are taken back into it from an (imaginary? subjective? omniscient?) insider's point of view throughout the movie. And while the massacre itself -- which came about unexpectedly at the airport, in a short burst of gunfire and explosions -- is shown only at the end (in a montage of questionable effectiveness), it's also what the whole picture has been building to. (Oh, I forgot to mention -- even as Medved went on Bill O'Reilly's Spinny Glibzone & Red Herring Dispensery to rail against the liberal agenda "Hollywood" -- this time in "
Brokeback Mountain," which even he admitted was a good movie -- a headline over a rave review on the Fox News web site read: Spielberg's 'Munich' Is the Best Movie of 2005.) Meanwhile, after granting what was purportedly his one-and-only interview about "Munich" to TIME magazine, Steven Spielberg sat down to describe his spy thriller's Socratic moral/political strategy in a last-minute interview with the LA Times:
Stating over and over again that he didn't want to make a position paper, the director says, "The simple truth is sometimes we have to choose from bad options. And sometimes there are unintended results." Answering aggression with aggression "creates a vicious cycle of violence with no real end in sight." [...] "[The film's] a discussion — it's like the Talmud is a series of discussions. It's just like Sodom and Gomorrah, where Abraham bargained with God about 'how can you punish the righteous with the wicked?' The film is a series of structured arguments between the members of the Mossad teams that reflects different points of view and allows you to choose the one that more easily fits how you see the conflict. And maybe even better can maybe change your mind about how you felt about this." Questions, he points out, are an inherent part of the Jewish faith. "My whole life as a Jew has been a series of arguments; we're always arguing and discussing..." [...]
That was exactly my response to the film, and the reason I wrote: "When questioning morality becomes a casualty of the Politically Correct '00s in the hands of demagogues like [Jack] Engelhard, I hate to think how that affects the great soul-searching Jewish religious and cultural traditions -- those that insist upon the necessity of, well, asking the Big Questions of oneself, one's country and one's religion." Of course, the goyim who cry "moral equivalence" (and the Jews who do, too) are only exposing their own pitifully stunted moral development. But since the movie is about moral ambivalence, it's no wonder there have already been such strong -- and contradictory -- feelings about it. LA Times staff writer Rachel Abromowitz observes:
Politically, the film is a Rorschach test — almost impossible to view except through the lens each individual audience member brings to the theater. There are those who will see a glamorized Israeli Mossad squad, dispatching villains with ingenuity, fiercely committed to the perpetuation of the Jewish state, while others will be infuriated that any of the Israeli commandos express any qualms about their mission. Some will be troubled that the Palestinian terrorists have been humanized, and others will be sure that they haven't been humanized or validated enough. At the end, it's a visceral, emotional piece of work that doesn't offer any specific solutions — a fact that will anger a whole other set of viewers. Some will complain that it lacks a point of view.
Indeed, in another Times piece, early reactions to the film were, just as you'd expect, all over the moral and political map -- but at least most were smart and knowledgeable and perceptive enough to see how the film operates. I suggest revisiting this article after you've seen the film, but in the meantime here are two comments I thought were especially valuable:
Jeff Kanew, director ["Revenge of the Nerds," "Babij Yar"]: "Because Jews are so often portrayed as victims, it was a pleasure watching them kick butt…. Considering the magnitude of the atrocity, I might have made the Palestinians a lot less human. But rather than drawing a cardboard stereotype of evil, Spielberg let the audience make up its own mind. He walked the line and he walked it well." [...] • Michael Barenbaum, professor of theology at the University of Judaism: "I went in with a certain measure of apprehension, afraid Spielberg was drawing a moral equivalent between the Palestinian and Israeli cause…. He didn't. What he does say is that Israelis, represented by the team leader Avner [Eric Bana], wrestle to remain moral in circumstances requiring immorality. One Jewish historian criticized that approach, asking why it's always the Jews … who feel guilt. The answer: Jews are Jews and don't want to become Dirty Harry or James Bond. As [Prime Minister] Golda Meir said, 'We may someday forgive Arabs for killing our children but not for making our children killers.' "
There's a concept that moral reductionists like David Brooks, Jack Englehard and Michael Medved may still find beyond their ken.

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