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Editor, The Konformist
The Morality of 'Munich'
By Jordan Elgrably, AlterNet
Posted on December 24, 2005
In 1972, Black September, a wing of Arafat's Al Fatah movement
kidnapped and then killed 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team
during the Munich games. This set in motion a series of reprisals by
the Israelis, including targeted assassinations of Palestinians, and
continuing acts of terrorism by militant groups against Israeli,
European and American targets. Today we are no closer to an end to
the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem,
nor to a lasting peace agreement that addresses equally the needs of
both Israeli and Palestinian peoples.
Now comes "Munich," a Hollywood feature film, co-written by
playwright Tony Kushner and screenwriter Eric Roth, and directed by
Steven Spielberg. Even before the film's release, neo-conservative
critics have attacked what they perceive as a liberal bias in the
film's portrayal of Palestinian terrorists and their would-be
Never having considered Spielberg a political filmmaker, I went to
an early screening of "Munich" with low expectations, surprised that
he would even tackle the subject. Yet the story that unfolded proved
to be an incisive argument against the use of violence, under any
circumstances, as a means to achieve political objectives. While the
Munich attack brought the Palestinian struggle into millions of
homes around the world and as such put the decades-old conflict on
the map, it also embroiled Israeli intelligence services in black
operations to assassinate its enemies wherever they might be found.
Palestinian terrorism created an image problem for the Palestinian
people, whose best interests I would argue were, and still are
betrayed by savage acts of violence against Israeli civilians.
And by engaging Black September and other terrorist groups on their
own violent terms, Israel betrayed its declared values as a Western-
style democracy that eschewed the death penalty in 1954 for ordinary
crimes (and only exercised the death penalty once, for Adolf
Eichmann's "extraordinary" crimes, in 1962).
Like Hany Abu-Assad's recent film "Paradise Now," which humanizes
two would-be Palestinian suicide bombers from Nablus, "Munich" is as
much an argument about the futility of violence to resolve conflict
as it is a cogent historical drama. It is shot in a gritty
documentary style and may remind some filmgoers of the early work of
European director Costas-Gavras, his political thriller "Z" in
In fact, "Munich" is the work of a mature filmmaker -- one who does
not appear beholden to popular American Jewish opinion that Israel
is always the underdog. The film depicts Palestinian and other Arab
characters as human beings, and it chronicles the change of heart
that Israeli agents experience as they go about their clandestine
mission to assassinate those the Israeli state identified as
responsible for the Munich operation.
At the start of the film, five undercover agents based in Europe,
led by Avner Kauffman (Eric Bana), believe themselves on a mission
for just vengeance. But it is not long before Bana and the others
begin questioning the sanctity of their assignment. The bloody acts
of revenge haunt Kauffman, and though he says that he is becoming
numb to murder, the truth is that he gradually breaks down,
succumbing to paranoia and fear. Meanwhile, for every act of
vengeance wreaked by the Israelis, the Palestinians respond with
further terrorist attacks. "Munich" makes it clear in the film's
closing frame that this cycle of violence continues to the present
And where are we? The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no closer to a
solution: The military occupation of Palestinian territories is in
its 38th year; the settlement movement continues apace; and all the
international peace initiatives have failed. The one dependable
reality of the conflict -- Palestinian suicide bombings and Israeli
targeted assassinations -- is utterly bankrupt. Nothing remains but
for the Palestinians to seek justice with a nonviolent revolution
for peace, in the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi, and for the Israeli
people to follow new leaders who can devise political rather than
military solutions. Perhaps the recently elected Amir Peretz, who
now helms the Labor Party, can lead the way. "I see the occupation
as an immoral act," Peretz has said. "I want to end the occupation
not because of Palestinian pressure, but because I see it as an
The actors of "Munich" perform with the intensity of an ensemble
cast. Chief among them are Australians Eric Bana, who convincingly
does both an Israeli and a German accent, and Geoffrey Rush, who
plays Kauffman's black ops boss. The other four assassins are
performed by an international cast of British, Irish, French and
German actors, including Daniel Craig, who has been tapped to be the
next James Bond, and Mathieu Kassovitz, who appeared opposite Audrey
Tautou in "Amelie" and directed the hit drama "La Haine" ("Hate").
Omar Metwally, meanwhile, turns in a strong performance as Ali, a
young Palestinian militant, and the other Arab character actors
chosen for this film turn in subdued, thoughtful performances. There
are also a number of Israeli actors who stand out, including Ayelet
Zurer as Kauffman's pregnant young wife, Gila Almagor as his mother,
and Ami Weinberg as General Zamir. In fact, there are few Americans
in "Munich," and most of them are behind the camera.
Unsurprisingly, "Munich" has already engendered a legion of
detractors even before going into wide release. It matters not. Well
into his career, after having been lionized by Hollywood, with a
litany of awards too long to list, Steven Spielberg has finally made
Jordan Elgrably is artistic director of the Levantine Cultural
Center in Los Angeles.
'They' Destroyed New Orleans
By Kenneth Cooper, AlterNet
Posted on December 24, 2005
My little cousin, Kenneth, sits across from me smoking a cigarette
in the driver's seat of his car. Like everyone else in my family, he
lost everything when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Now he sits
in my driveway on a Saturday night in LaPlace trying to understand
"Them people blew them levees," he says, looking at me, puffing on
his cigarette. "They wanted to save the white people Uptown, but
they ain't know it was gonna be this bad."
I just look at him when he says this. He's sincere, not a trace of
doubt in his voice. Some people might call him crazy for believing a
theory like that. But truth is, he's not alone, far from it. Last
month I went to Arlington and visited some of my in-laws, who
evacuated there. When the subject of Katrina and the levees came up,
all of them went to talking the exact same way.
"That's how they do us."
"They ain't want us there in the first place."
"So you know they don't want us back."
"And they wonder why people down there runnin' up in stores."
I sat on the couch that night and listened to them go at it for
about an hour. None of them seemed unreasonable. None of them seemed
crazy. Everybody just seemed pissed off. Their homes were gone,
their jobs too. Somebody had to be responsible. But when it got down
to figuring out who, the only one any of them could agree on
"They" have existed in New Orleans for years, generations really,
all the way back to 1965 when Hurricane Betsy hit the city and those
same levees along the Industrial Canal collapsed. Back then, the
lower Ninth Ward flooded just like it did during Katrina. Eight feet
of water poured into the neighborhood and covered the eaves of most
one-story houses. The people, most of them poor and black, climbed
onto their rooftops and waited for help. And even though Betsy's
storm surge wasn't as strong as Katrina's, and even though the water
didn't sit as long, the horror stories afterwards were still about
"I remember seeing dead bodies tied to telephone poles, floating in
the water," a co-worker of mine named Horace once told me. Horace
was 16 when Betsy hit. He waited out the storm and the water in the
lower Ninth Ward on the second floor of his uncle's house. He
remembered having to beg his uncle not to try to swim across the
street to save one of their neighbors who was trapped in her attic.
His uncle didn't. The neighbor eventually drowned in that attic.
When it was all over, Betsy killed at least 60 people in Louisiana,
a small number compared to Katrina, but when the people of the lower
Ninth Ward found out their neighborhood took the brunt of the hit
because a levee collapsed, the controversy started. For them the
levee failing wasn't an accident. It was a sacrifice, another
example of white people looking out for themselves. It was in this
environment that "they" first appeared and became a part of New
"We could hear 'em that night," Horace said, "blowing the levees.
They knew if they didn't, the water was gonna get to the French
Quarter or to the white people uptown. And they didn't want that."
Hearing my cousin echo those same words tonight, I can see that
after Katrina, the folklore shows no signs of dying. Washington Post
columnist Eugene Robinson would seem to agree.
"I was stunned in New Orleans," he told NBC's Meet The Press, "at
how many black New Orleanians would tell me with real conviction
that somehow the levee breaks had been engineered. These are not
wild-eyed people," he said. "These are reasonable, sober people who
really believe that."
Louis Farrakhan even claims he has proof. According to Newsmax.com,
Farrakhan said that Mayor Ray Nagin told him about a 25-foot crater
that exists under the Industrial Canal levee. Proof enough for
Farrakhan that the levees were blown up to get black people out of
"They know what they doing," my cousin looks over to me and
says. "They trying to run us out the city to get our land."
The land has always been a part of the folklore. For years the
leaders of New Orleans have been approving plans to tear down the
city's housing projects, which are mostly occupied by black people,
and replace them with expensive condominiums. Uptown, the St. Thomas
was the first to go. The Desire, in the Ninth Ward, soon followed.
Now, on the Westbank, most of the Fisher has been demolished. And
the other four seemed on their way out before Katrina even came. The
result of all this is that a large part of the black community is
being split up and shipped off to other areas. And as with the cases
of the St. Thomas and Desire, when black people see white people
moving in and taking over their part of town, conspiracy theories
"You ever think that they might have blown the levees to make sure
we had a city to come back to?" I ask my cousin. "I mean, who's to
say that the water wouldn't have gone up to the river and damaged
"If that was the case," he says, "they woulda dropped us food and
not starved us outside the Convention Center. They wouldn't a drew
their guns on people trying to make it to the West Bank if it was
about the city."
"Well then who's they?" I turn and ask him.
At first he doesn't say anything. He just stares.
"Is it Nagin? Is it Blanco? Harry Lee? Who?"
When he does respond the answer is straightforward and plain: "The
government," he says.
All across the city, the government, mainly because of FEMA, is
developing an even worse reputation than it had before. One Sunday
night I stayed up and listened to the Big 870, our local news and
talk radio station. A caller called in complaining about New Orleans
East, one of the hardest-hit areas in the city and another section
where black people make up the majority. The caller wanted to know
why other areas were getting more attention than his. He wanted to
know where his blue roof was and why New Orleans East was one of the
last places to have the water turned back on.
"In Lakeview," he said, "you could trip over a construction worker.
But out here you don't see a soul. All we got is police harassing
After he hung up, a lady from Lakeview, the upscale neighborhood
along the 17th Street Canal, called in. She wanted to know the same
thing about where she lived. She wanted to know why the government
was trying to run them out of their neighborhood. She cited the same
lack of blue roofs as her main evidence of a governmental conspiracy
to demolish their houses and take over Lakeview.
"I tell you, Vince," she said, talking to Vince Marinello, the host
of the show, "we got rain coming in and ruining the second floors of
our property. There's no one around here doing anything for us. All
of their attention is focused on the Ninth Ward. They have
completely forgot about Lakeview."
I sat there and listened for most of the night. The calls kept
coming through from both blacks and whites -- frustration with FEMA,
people claiming insurance companies were trying to rip them off, a
lack of Red Cross presence, and even down to a Mexican takeover.
Because of their large presence as construction workers, some people
believe that after they finish gutting out our houses, the Mexicans
will invest their money and take over the city.
"They're just everywhere," one caller called in and said. "And they
don't even bother to speak English."
The message on the radio that night was clear. Confusion is growing
all over the city. And with it, "they" seem to be expanding. "They"
have even gained official names like FEMA, the Government, Mexicans.
Maybe "they" are the cause of all the confusion, like my cousin and
the callers believe. Or maybe there's so much confusion because
people are looking for somebody to blame. Or maybe my neighbor Dan
had it right when he said, "Everybody's life is just changing so
fast. And people are just doing their best to understand it."
Kenneth Cooper is a student at the University of New Orleans. This
is his first published article.
Spying and Lying
By Katrina vanden Heuvel, The Nation
Posted on December 21, 2005
"This shocking revelation ought to send a chill down the spine of
-- Senator Russell Feingold, December 17, 2005
As reported by the New York Times on Friday, "Months after the
September 11 attacks, President Bush secretly authorized the
National Security Agency (NSA) to eavesdrop on Americans and others
inside the United States to search for evidence of terrorist
activity without the court-approved warrants ordinarily required for
A senior intelligence officer says Bush personally and repeatedly
gave the NSA permission for these taps -- more than three dozen
times since October 2001. Each time, the White House counsel and the
Attorney General -- whose job it is to guard and defend our civil
liberties and freedoms -- certified the lawfulness of the program.
(It is useful here to note "The Yoo Factor": The domestic spying
program was justified by a "classified legal opinion" written by
former Justice Department official John Yoo, the same official who
wrote a memo arguing that interrogation techniques only constitute
torture if they are "equivalent in intensity to...organ failure,
impairment of bodily function or even death.")
Illegally spying on Americans is chilling -- even for this
Administration. Moreover, as Kate Martin, director of the Center for
National Security Studies, told the Times, "the secret order may
amount to the president authorizing criminal activity." Some
officials at the NSA agree. According to the Times, "Some agency
officials wanted nothing to do with the program, apparently fearful
of participating in an illegal operation." Others were "worried that
the program might come under scrutiny by Congressional or criminal
investigators if Senator John Kerry, the Democratic nominee, was
It's always a fight to find out what the government doesn't want us
to know, and this Administration and its footsoldiers have used
every means available to undermine journalists' ability to exercise
their First Amendment function of holding power accountable. But
compounding the Administration's double-dealing, the media has been
largely complicit in the face of White House mendacity. David Sirota
puts it more bluntly in a recent entry from his blog: "We are
watching the media being used as a tool of state power in overriding
the very laws that are supposed to confine state power and protect
Consider this: the New York Times says it "delayed publication" of
the NSA spying story for a year. The paper says it acceded to White
House arguments that publishing the article "could jeopardize
continuing investigations and alert would-be-terrorists that they
might be under scrutiny."
Despite Administration demands though, it was reported in
yesterday's Washington Post that the decision by Times editor Bill
Keller to withhold the article caused friction within the Times'
Washington bureau, according to people close to the paper. Some
reporters and editors in New York and in the paper's DC bureau had
apparently pushed for earlier publication.
In an explanatory statement, Keller issued the excuse
that, "Officials also assured senior editors of the Times that a
variety of legal checks had been imposed that satisfied everyone
involved that the program raised no legal questions."
This from a paper, which as First Amendment lawyer Martin Garbus
pointed out in a letter to the editor "rejected similar arguments
when it courageously published the Pentagon Papers over the
government's false objections that it would endanger our foreign
policy as well as the lives of individuals." The Times, Garbus went
on to argue, "owes its readers more. The Bush Administration's
record for truthfulness is not such that one should rely on its
often meaningless and vague assertions."
Readers and citizens deserve to know why the New York Times
capitulated to the White House's request. It is true that Friday's
revelations of this previously unknown, illegal domestic spying
program helped stop the Patriot Act reauthorization. But what if the
Times had published its story before the election? And what other
stories have been held up due to Administration cajoling, pressure,
threats and intimidation?
The question of how this Administration threatens the workings of a
free press, a cornerstone of democracy, remains a central one. Every
week brings new evidence of White House attempts to delegitimize the
press's role as a watchdog of government abuse, an effective counter
to virtually unchecked executive power.
Last month, for example, the Washington Post published Dana Priest's
extraordinary report about the CIA's network of prisons in Eastern
Europe for suspected terrorists. Priest's reporting helped push
passage of a ban on the metastasizing use of torture. But, as with
the New York Times, the Post acknowledged that it had acceded to
government requests to withhold the names of the countries in which
the black site prisons exist.
How many other cases are there of news outlets choosing to honor
government requests for secrecy over the journalistic duty of
informing the public about government abuse and wrongdoing?
Never has the need for an independent press been greater. Never has
the need to know what is being done in our name been greater. As
Bill Moyers said in an important speech delivered on the 20th
anniversary of the National Security Archive, a dedicated band of
truth-tellers, "...There has been nothing in our time like the Bush
Administration's obsession with secrecy." Moyers added. "It's an old
story: the greater the secrecy, the deeper the corruption."
Federation of American Scientists secrecy specialist Steven
Aftergood bluntly says, "an even more aggressive form of government
information control has gone unenumerated and often unrecognized in
the Bush era, as government agencies have restricted access to
unclassified information in libraries, archives, websites and
official databases." This practice, Aftergood adds, "also accords
neatly with the Bush Administration's preference for unchecked
"Information is the oxygen of democracy," Aftergood rightly insists.
This Administration is trying to cut off the supply. Journalists and
media organizations must find a way to restore their role as
effective watchdogs, as checks on an executive run amok.
Katrina vanden Heuvel is editor of The Nation.