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Justice must be done

Spielberg's 'Munich' falls victim to today's moral relativism, which ignores the absolute evil of killing innocents.

January 01, 2006|Judea Pearl | JUDEA PEARL is a professor at UCLA and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation.

WHEN STEVEN Spielberg talks about his film "Munich," he uses words such as "violence," "empathy," "revenge" and "doubt." But one word is missing from his comments, and from the film itself: "Justice."

Nearly four years ago, when the world reacted with shock and indignation to the murder of our son, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, my family and I had hoped the civilized nations would mobilize to protect themselves, not merely against the practice of targeting the innocent to transmit political messages but more pointedly against the ideologies that license such moral deformity.

Unfortunately, brutal and videotaped killings of innocents has since become part of the cultural scene of the 21st century, steadily instilling contempt toward the lives of others. More alarming, the very notion of terrorism as a universal moral taboo has been the subject of a relentless intellectual assault that relativizes and blurs it. The mantra "one man's 'terrorist' is another's 'freedom fighter' " subverts judgments of right and wrong.

Regrettably, Spielberg's "Munich" now adds a Hollywood-styled confusion to the moral relativism on terrorism. The story follows an Israeli agent -- assigned to assassinate the Palestinians responsible for murdering 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich -- who stops before completing his task as his moral doubts grow.

But shaping the story in this way blurs the distinction between the murder of innocents and bringing killers to justice.

Our son could have predicted the development of this moral confusion as early as October 2001, three months before his abduction in Pakistan. While interviewing the influential Qatari cleric Sheik Yusuf Qaradawi, then considered a moderate, Danny asked him about suicide bombings against Israeli civilians.

The learned sheik replied with a novel twist of logic. "Israeli society in general is armed," he said, implying that Israeli civilians -- including women and children, doctors and journalists -- are legitimate targets. Three months later, Danny would fall victim to the same brand of twisted logic.

After Danny's murder, the most common reaction we heard from Pakistanis was, "The murderers are unIslamic. However, thousands of Muslims are being killed in Afghanistan, Palestine and Iraq, so why all the fuss about one American journalist?" This misses the distinction between those who boast of killing innocents and those who labor to prevent civilian casualties -- the litmus test separating terrorists from counterterrorists.

"Munich" falls into this same trap of moral relativism. It does not explicitly justify terrorism, but it leans in that direction by assigning a palatable yet unchallenged rationale to the Palestinian terrorists, and by having the Israeli hero suffer a crisis of conscience. The idea that taking an innocent life is wrong regardless of the rationale never enters the discussion.

Further missing from the script is the most important theme of all: justice.

When people ask me whether I seek revenge, I answer: The killers do not interest me. I would rather seek effective ways of lessening the hatred that took Danny's life. We should care less about fanatics on the run and more about the ideological fuel that sustains them, such as clerics like Qaradawi, and Al Jazeera, which amplifies their voices.

However, when asked whether I wish to see the mastermind of Danny's abduction, Ahmad Omar Saeed Sheikh, brought to justice, my answer is an unqualified yes.

I can imagine Danny's son Adam (whom Danny never lived to see) one day asking what happened to those who killed his father. I hope not to have to reply: "The hearing of his appeal has been postponed for the 32nd time," (which, to the shame of Pakistan's justice system, is the answer at the moment).

Bringing criminals to justice reaffirms the civilized world's commitment to live by principles and breeds secure and responsible citizens; failure to do so breeds morally confused criminals. "Munich" is about the complexity of bringing evildoers to justice in a world where those entrusted with the job often lack the will to do so. With that in mind, the film can still be enjoyed. But the message we should take away is that two of the terrorists are still at large and must be brought to justice.

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