Friday, June 23, 2006

Driving over the precipice

We watched Munich at home last night--the movie that had conservatives absolutely apoplectic--David Brooks and Charles Krauthammer in particular. I remember being amazed at their venom a few months ago. Brooks was upset primarily because he felt the movie tried to make us feel sympathy for terrorists or to make them more human. Brooks' perspective was that terrorists are the ultimate evil, a simple concept, and there should be no moral complexity or ambiguity or hand-wringing when it came to wiping out absolute evil.

Krauthammer was put off because the movie took artistic liberties with a true story. He felt, apparently, that it should have been a documentary. To elide or condense facts with the historical events of the Israeli crack-down following the massacre at Munich would, somehow, falsify the truth and lead people who watched it astray. That is, he basically transformed himself into Plato.

Munich opens with a black screen on which words appear something to the effect of 'inspired by real events.' So the movie announces itself as a version of a true story--it does not masquerade as a pseudo-documentary. Furthermore, the events following the massacre of the athletes quite clearly serve as an allegory for the situation and the actions of the United States following 9/11. The statements the characters make do not allude to these events, but the script is carefully written and carefully tailored such that the viewer experiences a shock of recognition at regular intervals. For example, one of the Israeli spy bureaucrats is quite obsessed with making sure that Avner provides the government with receipts for the money that is being spent--I wish I could remember the exact line, but he says something to the effect of, 'remember, someone else pays for everything you do.' The movie closes with a wide view of a waterfront park in Brooklyn with the Manhattan skyline in the far, far background. The Twin Towers are visible, but are not foregrounded or emphasized in any dramatic way.

Munich is a morality play. And it was one of the most absorbing movies I'd seen for quite a long time. We started watching it, noting that it was over 2.5 hours long, thinking we'd stop it somewhere in the middle and watch the rest tonight. But I couldn't stop, even though I was exhausted.

We fell asleep as a severe thunderstorm swept through our area, with lightning strikes that were very close. It kept me awake, as well as my thoughts. I fell asleep thinking that what the movie said to me was not that, as conservative critics screeched, liberal morality is complex and wishy-washy, but that, in fact, the movie alleged, as does classical, iconographic literature, that it is evil that is stunningly complex.

I did not get the impression that the director showing us that one of the Palestinians had a family, or that one of them was a translator of classic literature, or that one of them longed for a homeland, or that some of them spoke to Avner as he was plotting to kill them (unbeknowst to them) was any attempt to generate empathy or sympathy for the Palestinian terrorists. Avner and his team proceed with their work, even when they are given pause. The movie did not make me feel sorry for the terrorists who were murdered by the Israelis, nor did it seem to try to do so. And everytime Avner wavered, overcome by exhaustion or moral uncertainty, the movie cut to scenes of the Israeli atheletes being murdered--these were Avner's thoughts, the movie seemed to suggest. And these imaginings gave him fortitude to continue.

The movie explored the issue of how a 'civilized' society responds to brutality and evil. And evil is complex, not simple. In the literature of the Renaissance and Middle Ages that I studied in grad school, evil is always represented as complex: mutable, shifting, almost unknowable. The Green Knight, for example, is a changeling creature, a masquerader, a trickster. Gawain wins by being simple and steadfast--unified and unchangeable in his moral certitude. In The Faerie Queene, evil is the very essence of mutability--it is disguised, hidden, complex in its attitudes and expressions. Una, the lady of the Redcrosse Knight, has that name for a reason.

So of course the Palestinian terrorists are complex: in their attitudes, their motivations, their conflation of victimization and the justification for terror. They have families, homes, ideas, attitudes, vocations--they are shape-shifters; they are, in fact, evil.

What the movie questions is whether a society that is bound to the good--the principles of democracy, of law and social justice, of a belief in human goodness--can fight evil by mimicking its tactics. That is, fight evil by adopting or immersing itself in the complexities and grey areas in which evil lurks. Avner's team is, one by one, killed or driven mad by the apparent necessity of fighting evil with the methods (terrorism) that evil adopts.

Evil is tangled, closeted, multiple, teeming. Avner, like the U.S., must confront the problem that evil is a many-headed beast: you can keep cutting the individual heads off, but new ones grow to take the place of the others. And evil insinuates itself into a population, coercing some of it, hiding behind the others, such that one cannot, as a morally upright individual or nation, detonate an entire people to eradicate the rot.

This is what I fear for my own country: we have sacrificed the principles that make us good and just for a series of tactics that allow us to kill, but not eradicate the evil that threatens to destroy us. The more we try to eradicate evil by abandoning our unity and our resolve in our principles, the more we become like evil itself, the more we are compromised. The less effective we are. Does it even matter if we kill Zarqawi? Or bin Laden? Others will rise to take their places. Only if we confront our own complicity with evil--we stop funding the dictators who allow evil to flourish in their countries, we stop buying the oil that profits evil, we stop compromising the principles that make us great--only then will we stop seeing through the glass darkly, only then will we confront our enemy face-to-face.

The Western world has been dealing with terrorism for so long--we've fed it and allowed it to grow by funding oil dictators. The only way to get out of this is to eliminate the need for oil and eliminate the brutal jockeying for power that goes with it. Oil=death.

And you notice, I have not yet stopped driving my car.

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