Oscar-nominated documentary interviews former heads of Israel’s Shin Bet
The commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the start of the Iraq War has re-introduced heated debate over the Bush Administration’s presentation of clearly false information regarding Iraq’s weapons program and their involvement in the 9/11 attacks, all of which draws attention to the politics behind wartime decisions, especially when abuses of the War Powers Act allow an administration to seize initial control of the process from Congress. As citizens, we can understand and certainly appreciate that our leaders have access to more sensitive information than can be presented to the general public, but when the lives on the line are those of our sons and daughters, husbands and wives, parents, friends and neighbors, the moral stakes are greater for all of us.
And yet, complexities blur and sometimes completely darken the moral landscape. Dror Moreh’s Academy Award-nominated feature documentary “The Gatekeepers” explores the grey areas of national security, not from an American perspective, but rather through the cold survivalist logic of the leaders of Shin Bet, Israel’s secret security force, which operates as a separate – but not exactly disconnected – arm of the Israeli government. These leaders, to a man, highlight the very real split between their goals and those of the nation’s political leaders. Security is about survival at all costs and cares little for public justification, although, depending on the enemy and the situation, there’s a sense that certain rules of engagement can be applied.
Back in 2001, when America joined the global fray in the war on terror, we were ready to wage war, but in truth what has happened is that we waded into the far murkier, trickier notion of worrying about safety from an unseen enemy that had proven a willingness to operate in a post-guerilla offensive. So, what did we do? We banned liquids and nail files as carry-on items when boarding planes among a host of guidelines that made air travel inconvenient at best. But were we truly safer?
From its start in 1962, Shin Bet wasn’t even remotely concerned with inconvenience. This secret anti-terrorist fight was focused on the by-any-means-necessary approach of Israel’s enemies. The organization gathered intelligence through force and coercion, using embedded turned-operatives. They made decisions to take out confirmed targets and expose themselves to questions about collateral damage. They sometimes captured and then abused – to the point of death – detainees. The results of these actions occurred with much less handwringing than takes place in the hallowed corridors of elected office.
Drone strikes on one hand, “Die Hard” in the White House-styled action movies on the other. We don’t know what we want or how to rationalize it. Yet, “The Gatekeepers” offers an example for us to consider, one that we should take advantage of because hearing the cold hard truths may be difficult, but no less so than dealing with the complex realities. As citizens, we all have a responsibility, which I think is what separates Americans from Israelis. Somehow, it seems, in the voices of these leaders, we are also hearing from the people themselves, a nation that understands certain actions must be taken that are far from ideal, but what other choice is there?
Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com