'The Gatekeepers'


Who knew a few old Israelis could so perfectly encapsulate the sinking hopelessness that the United States' own War on Terror fills me with? 

Director Dror Moreh is the obvious answer, I suppose. Moreh's Oscar-nominated documentary, The Gatekeepers, gathers the collective wisdom of six former heads of Shin Bet, the Israeli government agency tasked with safeguarding the embattled country from terrorist attacks and the like internally (Mossad, by comparison, is more akin to our CIA). And that wisdom, it seems to me, is that less is more, that giving in to your own society's extremist tendencies when you are attacked is not the best way to practice counter-terrorism. Drones and "surgical" airstrikes? Those don't really work either.

That he was able to get them all to speak so openly about their experiences feels miraculous. People who work in intelligence spend their lives guarding secrets, yet here are six people with knowledge of countless state secrets taking us through the last 40-plus years of mostly depressing history in this Middle East hotspot. Even more amazing is that these six men are so unimpressed with their own life's work.

They recount everything from the Six-Day War to the hijacking of a bus to the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and their targeted attacks on Hamas militants. And in far too many cases the unintended and unforeseen consequences of their actions only leads to more violence, more extremism, an even more untenable situation.

Much of the true blame for all of this is laid at the feet of the politicians to whom Shin Bet ultimately answer. This is self-serving, I suppose, but it passes the smell test too. The Gatekeepers is broken up into a series of vignettes that roughly trace the progression of the organization's counter-terrorism efforts. The first vignette is titled "No Strategy, Just Tactics," which is a heckuva way to set that exact tone. Shin Bet is the instrument that carries out Israel's counter-terrorism efforts. It can't decide where to go and what to do any more than a scalpel can perform surgery all on its own.

But its position at the forefront of the action -- to carry on the clumsy analogy -- does put it closest to what absolutely isn't working, and what isn't working is repeated provocation of Palestinians living in occupied lands or death from behind a computer screen that purports to limit collateral damage but in reality does no such thing.

It's a shame that these lessons couldn't have been imparted to us before we became mired in Afghanistan and Iraq. It's a relief that they appear to have been in Libya and Syria. Here's hoping before we wade into this region again with all of our military might, the decision-makers behind such action spend a few hours learning from the men of Shin Bet.