"Munich" and revenge

Posted: Jan 10, 2006 12:05 AM

Nearly every review of the Steven Spielberg film "Munich," especially those that are sympathetic to the film's "stop the cycle of violence" message, describes the movie as a story about Israeli "revenge" for the Palestinian murder of the Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

In so doing they reveal their instinctive ambivalence, if not antagonism, toward what Israel did: sending out a hit team to kill those involved in the Munich massacre.

So let's deal with this whole question of revenge and the widespread assumption -- from the secular Left to the religious Right -- that revenge is by definition morally wrong.

Revenge is defined by the Cambridge University dictionary as "harm done to someone as a punishment for harm that they have done to you." Now, in general, especially in personal life, this is not a good policy. If someone steps on your toe, it is not wise or good to do the same to him.

However, the desire to see identical harm inflicted on the evildoer is not only not wrong, it is at the essence of an empathetic, moral and just heart and conscience. What sort of person reads what a torturer did to an innocent victim and doesn't want to see that torturer suffer? Those who have no desire to see such people suffer commensurate with the evil they have inflicted have blunted the natural human desire for justice.

And talking about justice, what sort of justice would it have been for Israel not to seek the death of the murderers of their athletes? Would the world be a finer, kinder, let alone more just, place if all those murderers had been allowed to live?

That argument is never advanced in the screenplay of "Munich." Instead, all the arguments put into the mouths of the Israeli hit team are about "Jewish blood is not cheap" and other nationalistic -- as opposed to moral -- defenses. This is because the chief writer, Tony Kushner, is a man of the Left; and the Left has lost its hatred of evil, its ability to recognize evil and, most of all, any desire to wage war against it.

That's why the movie is a paean to "stop the cycle of violence." Its leftist writers and well-intentioned but naive director reduce wars against perpetrators of evil to "seeking revenge" or becoming "no better than their enemies," and other cliches that literally demoralize wars fought by good societies. The same arguments are given by the same people against executing murderers: "When we kill murderers, we are no better than them." As if killing Timothy McVeigh was morally equivalent to his murder of innocents in Oklahoma City.

Of course, none of this means that all revenge is moral. When revenge is unjust -- if, for example, the Israelis had murdered a group of Palestinian athletes -- it is immoral.

But what could be more just, more moral, than Israel targeting only the murderers for death? Though the film attempts to portray the Israeli response as morally useless -- with "cycle of violence" and "it accomplishes nothing since they just substitute a new terrorist for the one last killed" arguments -- the film is nevertheless a tremendous compliment to the Israelis.

First, it shows how careful the Israelis were to kill only the murderers (though the Israeli hit team did in fact kill one innocent Moroccan in Norway, which is not shown in the film).

Second, while the Israelis are constantly asking themselves if they are doing what is right, there is not a hint of moral self-inquiry among the Palestinians. For good reason.

So while the film is dedicated to the proposition that men involved in killing murderers become themselves morally inferior beings and therefore pay a great personal price for their war on evil, the facts of the film, as opposed to the made-up dialogue, suggest quite the opposite: That the world is a better place when revenge and justice are the same.