Tuesday, March 24, 2009

This is from For a Palestinian: A Memory of Wael Zuaiter, an exhibit at the Guggenheim that I visited this weekend. In 1972, Zuaiter was a representative of the PLO - a terrorist organization which at the time was bombing schoolbuses. After the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the munich olympics, he was arrested by the Italian police for his connections with the perpetrators, but was ultimately let go. When Israel, in response to the murders, put together a list of PLO organizers of terrorism in Europe - based primarily on testimony of "turned" PLO members - Zuaiter was on top of the list. Israel assassinated him in October 1972.

The exibition is a collection of Zuaiter's extensive book collection, letters, postcards; photographs of the places where he lived and walked; a recording of Mahler's ninth symphony, which was Zuaiter's favorite; snapshots of him with friends; a photograph of Zuaiter lying in a pool of blood after his assassination, a book pierced by a bullet in his hands; pictures of the artist shooting bullets at books (see photograph above). As the New Yorker summarizes it,
Zuaiter, a poet and an intellectual, was never conclusively linked to Black September, and Jacir’s installation and related film elide thorny questions of his alleged culpability. What emerges instead...is a deeply moving memorial with a blatant political agenda.
Personally, the only emotion this provoked in me is irritation, but perhaps for others it was "deeply moving." Its hard to feel any sympathy for Zuaiter. For the sake of argument, lets accept the premise that Israeli intelligence was wrong - that Zuaiter was not involved in terrorist acts, and that he was, as the second in command of the PLO would claim later, a pacifist. It is still undisputed that he belonged to a terrorist organization. And, really, working for terrorists has its risks, as Zuaiter found out firsthand.

Incidentally, the US, quite rightly, has a similar policy of assassinating Al Qaeda members whenever it can.

What do we owe the families of the people who have been assassinated this way, and how do we deal with the charges that some of them might be innocent?

It seems quite plain to me that we owe them nothing, no more than we owe to families of enemy soldiers in any war the US has fought. The most measured response to terrorism in our arsenal is to use our intelligence to locate terrorists and assassinate them. As long as in doing so, we are not targeting civilians deliberately, our behavior is nothing more than self-defense. I certainly hope that if some US soldier finds Osama Bin Laden in his sights, he won't hesitate to pull the trigger. I also hope the same would go for anyone working for Bin Laden.

In the end, what the exhibit shows most clearly are the moral blind spots of the artist. Its somewhat repulsive that someone would make, and a major gallery would host, a memorial to a member of a terrorist organization.

On a deeper level, what makes the exhibit a fairly trite work of art is precisely the decision of the artist to "elide thorny questions of [Zuaiter's] culpability." Interesting art requires asking uncomfortable questions and being painfully honest in your answers. The Guggenheim exhibit, on the other hand, feels like a second-rate attempt at political propaganda.