Documentaries often get lost in the noise of Hollywood blockbusters — with the occasional anti-corporate hit, online stalking scare or political slander piece breaking through to audiences. But a recently released film called The Gatekeepers offers a riveting and powerful insight into the world’s longest ongoing war on terror: Israel’s fight against radical Islam.
The documentary focuses on all six former heads of Israel’s secretive internal security service — Shin Bet — and in being interviewed for the first time ever, allows them an opportunity to share their insights on decades of fighting terrorism, their shames over Israel's occupation of Palestinian territory, and their frustrations with a cycle of never-ending violence.
The six men come from various backgrounds, military experiences, and historical focal points in their country’s timeline. They have disparate tactics, philosophies and perspectives on the problems and solutions of asymmetric warfare. In a startlingly candid series of confessions, they share their doubts about policy, strategy and the morality of combating terrorist threats. The film covers broadly known historical events like the intifadas, suicide bombings and Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination — as well as covert operations that until now have not been discussed openly.
With all the debates surrounding Zero Dark Thirty’s accuracy, this movie should be required viewing for those seeking an honest, chilling and unflinching look into the maddening futility faced by the world’s most experienced counter-terrorist operatives. The men openly share their struggles with wielding "unnatural" power to kill their enemies — occasionally rationalizing it with a sense of duty, occasionally allowing themselves to be haunted by it. The director and interviewer — Dror Moreh — presses them to account for ethical lines crossed, social upheavals on both sides and the failure to steer their country towards a more stable reality.
There is an interesting dialogue about the philosophical concerns of politicians and the public, versus the pragmatic reality of executing military missions. The notions of morality become malleable, and it is only with historical hindsight that they display a full appreciation for their actions. By the end of the film, all six men share a disdain for the religious right on both sides of the fight — including fundamentalist Jews who antagonized the conflict, assassinated Prime Minister Rabin and plotted attacks of their own. It is a harrowing reminder for us not to let our religious zealots dictate our foreign policy.
The men also agree that expanded forms of "overkill" attacks only served to unify their enemy further. They discuss the justifications of targeted assassinations, killing bomb makers rather than suicide bombers, and even attacking the clerics who preach messages of hate. They seem to all concede that those tactics proved militarily ineffective, and ethically ambiguous.
In the echoes of their difficult experiences, we can a warning of a future we soon face — having passed the first decade of our own "war on terror." Blurring our sense of vengeance over the 9/11 attacks with neocon politics in the region, opened America and Europe to a host of anti-colonialist reprisals. Moreover, we've become a security state on the homefront, vigilantly defending against the ever present threat of "danger."
The film’s message is clear: a cycle of perpetual vengeance leads to cruelty on both sides, and becoming the monster you try to fight. It rings depressingly true in light of our nation’s perpetually tarnished image abroad. We are willing to use drone strikes to kill suspects and all those around them, but what do we truly accomplish in martyring innocent bystanders? Are you guilty of terrorism by being in the same mosque where a cleric preaches anti-American sentiment? Are you guilty for being stuck in traffic behind a car that has a terrorist suspect in it? All these civilian deaths cannot be easily dismissed as acceptable “collateral damage.” The pain and suffering of their families only fuel our true enemy’s cause.
Most of all, the film looks behind the veil of fear and “imminent threats,” showing us that as much as we may face real dangers in this world, our response to those dangers dictates whether they continue to grow. It is an honest and frightening moral maze, both complex and sobering. For every terrorist we kill, five more spring up. For every danger averted through brutal tactics, ten more present themselves. Negotiations may seem weak to the warhawks, but they are the only true way to avoid perpetual violence, and be seen as peace-seekers in our enemy’s eyes. The number of Muslims who seek to harm us is small, but grows larger whenever we indiscriminately endanger civilians to target them.
These six men have dealt in death their entire careers, and have fought to avoid it’s only natural conclusion: total destruction. Their warning is one that needs to be heard and heeded, if the world is ever going to move passed a senseless bloodbath motivated by fanatic, religious minorities.