CULTURE: Terrorism at the movies
Shira Herzog

January 31, 2006

TORONTO -- It`s a tale of two movies that couldn`t be more dissimilar and, yet, more alike. Palestinian director Hany Abu Assad says that international acclaim for his film, Paradise Now (winner of this year`s Golden Globe best foreign language film award), demonstrates recognition of the Palestinians` right to liberty and equality. Steven Spielberg says that his much-hyped film, Munich, is a metaphor for peace.

The first film uses the story of two young Palestinian men on a suicide-bombing mission inside Israel to reflect on the motivation for suicide bombings from a Palestinian point of view. The second uses the story of the alleged Mossad squad assigned to revenge the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics to reflect on the morality of violent retaliation from an Israeli point of view.

The two films couldn`t be further apart in budget, tone and setting - but the questions that they raise are two sides of the same coin.

This is not to draw a parallel between the perpetrators of indiscriminate terrorism and those who retaliate against it. But even when retaliation is justified, to ignore wrenching questions about the effectiveness of certain counterterrorism measures or about the struggle of consciousness in violent retaliation for injustices is to bury one`s head in the sand.

Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Abu Assad break entrenched taboos and challenge their viewers to think about such issues without providing simple, black-and-white answers. Because of this, both films have generated inordinate controversy.

I`m deliberately avoiding the misplaced debate over Munich`s historical accuracy, because actually, the film doesn`t purport to be factual. The only incontrovertible facts that it deals with are the athletes` murders and the subsequent deaths of key Palestinian operatives. As film critic Roger Ebert points out, in non-documentary film, `the task of a director is to transmute fact into emotions and beliefs and beliefs are beliefs precisely because they`re not facts`.

Indeed, belief is the issue in both films. I`m reminded of sociologist Max Weber`s observation that when actions most likely to bring about desired results are inconsistent with our most cherished principles, there`s no single, authoritative standard that can guide us. In such cases, Weber says, the individual has to make the choice between conflicting standards and causes of action.

If Mr. Spielberg gives equal time to a contrary view, it`s not to the claims of the Palestinian terrorists (he leaves no doubt about his revulsion with their cold-blooded actions and his justification of Israel`s retaliation as such) but rather to the conflict between a justified cause and base behavior in its pursuit.

Early in Munich, Golda Meir offers one answer by authorizing the manhunt and arguing that every civilization sometimes has to compromise its values. By the end of the film, Avner, the team`s leader, rejects that belief and the country that makes him indifferent to killing.

In Paradise Now, if Mr. Abu Assad questions his protagonists` actions while clearly empathizing with their cause, it`s because he recognizes that very conflict.

By giving voice to multiple individual perspectives, Mr. Spielberg avoids definitive pronouncements on larger policy issues. But three continuous decades of terrorism and counterterrorism later, his questions are debated in Israel even more pointedly than before.

It`s fair to ask if targeted assassinations (now official policy) `win the war against terrorism` or if they spawn new cadres motivated by revenge. And on the ground, while some soldiers are uneasy with harsh measures they`re forced to take against Palestinian civilians at checkpoints dotting the West Bank, many others have become inured to imposing the humiliation and hardship justified by security considerations.

In turn, as I was watching Paradise Now, I couldn`t help remembering former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak`s statement that had he been a Palestinian under occupation, he`d turn to violence to protest against Israel`s actions. (Some Israelis never forgave Mr. Barak for the statement, which he made not to justify terrorism but to explain why Israel should end the occupation.)

But while clearly on the side of his protagonists` plight, Mr. Abu Assad refuses to take the easy way out. Instead, through the daughter of a deceased resistance leader, he creates an eloquent moral anchor that rejects violence as a strategy. It`s perhaps less powerful coming from a woman who`s recently returned from abroad, but in her statement - `there`s no sacrifice in revenge. If you kill, then there`s no difference between victim and occupier` - the director`s challenge to his fellow Palestinians rings loud and clear.

Some Jewish and Israeli organizations have accused Mr. Spielberg of drawing `moral equivalence` between Israel`s antiterrorism measures and Palestinian violence. While filming in Nablus in 2004, Mr. Abu Assad had to deal with Islamist groups who briefly kidnapped his location manager to protest against the `anti-Palestinian` film. Meanwhile, other Palestinians say that he has reinforced international recognition of their struggle.

My recommendation: Go beyond the platitudes, take the trouble to see both films, and answer the tough questions for yourself.

Shira Herzog is a columnist with the Canadian Globe and Mail and divides her time between Toronto and Tel Aviv. This article was originally published in the Globe and Mail on January 21, 2006. Acknowledgement to Common Ground News Service (CGNews)