Thursday, December 29, 2005

"Munich" and the Role of Law

I saw Munich over the weekend and found it quite an astounding achievement by Steven Spielberg. One of the most complex and engaging movies he has produced in years. It certainly ranks up there with Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan. There are plenty of good reviews of the movie. The New York Times has two reviews here and here, and David Brooks' take on it is here, and they are all worth reading. I will not attempt to replicate.

But there is one aspect of the movie that is intriguing and, as best I can tell, missing from the movie reviews so far. That aspect is the morality play about the role of law in the conduct of war and the role of law in preserving the humanity of a killer.

Law featured prominently in the movie through its absence. The early meeting with Golda Meir, the total secrecy of the mission, the lack of respect for codes of conduct, the flagrant and repeated violations of territorial sovereignty, the extrajudicial killings, the willful transgression of national and international laws. The lawlessness of the mission is not opaque, and the dialogue among the avengers is replete with reference to their breach of the rule of law.

But what is most interesting about the movie is the impact that this lawlessness has on the hero assassin, Avner. Because Avner recognizes his lawlessness, he becomes tormented with his own humanity, his own evil. He descends into an inferno of fear. Fear not so much of death, but the loss of his soul.

The chilling dialogue between Avner and his mother at the close of the movie suggests that she has the heart of a terrorist who is willing to do anything, sacrifice anything, for home. Her words echo the words of the PLO terrorist's words earlier in the movie yearning for native land. But she does not know at what cost these ends were achieved. She doesn't want to know. But Avner's torment is not about ends, but means.

As I watched the movie it struck me just how important the laws of war are to the soldiers who do the killing. Sterile academics dissect jus in bello and parse neat distinctions between enemy and non-enemy combatants. But soldiers actually live these rules of war. And the line between a tormented assassin and a noble and heroic soldier is the rule of law. Extrajudicial killing is portrayed in the movie as a type of moral relativism that begins to destroy the avenging assassin as much as the evildoers they are killing. That is why a soldier so desperately needs to know that his actions -- his "judicial" killings -- are not simply necessary, but morally justified. By sanctioning his conduct through the rule of law, society cleanses his killing of others and the soldier thereby preserves his humanity.

The movie brought to mind an excerpt from Elie Wiesel's The Accident. This book is the last of Wiesel's trilogy (Night, Dawn and the Accident) and one of his most thoroughly depressing. In short, it is about a Holocaust survivor who becomes a terrorist. In the book, Wiesel suggests that in the conduct of war, the terrorist soon forgets the night of terror, but the victims never forget. In their eyes, he who has killed is a killer for life. The terrorist may choose another occupation, hide under another identity, but for the victims he is an executioner, and an executioner he remains even after the backdrop has changed and he is acting in another play upon a different stage.

Spielberg's morality play that is Munich posits that neither the victims nor the terrorists ever forget. Avner in the end abandons his mission, abandons his country, and seeks refuge in another land. But his soul cannot rest. A line has been transgressed and an assassin like Avner can never go back.

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