gatekeepers

How, precisely, does one fight a “War on Terrorism?” Terrorism is a tactic. It has no flag. It is not limited to the strength of whoever uses it, because new users pop up all the time. Such a war is by definition unwinnable. Smart people have been bringing this up ever since the War on Terror was announced, but it seems that now is that time that the question has finally begun to sink into the mainstream. Zero Dark Thirty is a major hit. Dirty Wars made waves at Sundance this year. And then there’s this film, nominated for Best Documentary Feature at this year’s Academy Awards. The Gatekeepers approaches the issue through a unique, arresting hook.

There are only six interviewees in the film, only six voices that the audience is hearing. But they’re powerful voices. They belong to six of the former heads of the Sherut haBitachon haKlali, or Shin Bet, the Israeli internal security service. In the decades since the Six Day War, these titular gatekeepers have led the effort to suppress the violence of the Palestinians against their state.  In this movie, they reflect on their careers, and the morally shady actions they have taken in the service of what they believed (at the time, at least) was for the good of their country.

This is the first time that any of these men have spoken out about the nature of their job. They don’t drop any stunning truths that will send conspiracy theorists reeling, but they’re providing a vital perspective: that of the man on top, or “the old man at the end of the corridor” as one of them puts it. The people in charge of intelligence agencies aren’t masterminds or puppeteering schemers – they’re just people. Some of them admit to making mistakes, while others attempt to explain difficult decisions. It’s humanizing to see them speak so openly about events that range from the Bus 300 incident to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.

The doc itself makes the viewer feel like they are participating in a covert action. The few interviewees are usually shot in close-up, giving an almost uncomfortable degree of intimacy with them. It often feels as though they have arranged a secret meeting just with the audience, and are about to divulge everything, Deep Throat-style. Historical footage is combined with extensive computer-generated imagery to illustrate both the anecdotes the gatekeepers relate and the ideas that they discuss, such as targeted assassination or drone strikes.

A strong feeling of regret permeates The Gatekeepers. Avraham Shalom, who resigned his post after the Bus 300 fiasco, remarks that his actions still haunt him, and that “when you retire, you become a bit of a leftist.” The movie ends with Yuval Diskin, who was the current head of the Shin Bet during filming, reciting a chillingly prescient quote from Israeli intellectual Yeshayahu Leibowitz. Leibowitz said that, left unchecked, the Shin Bet would inexorably take over the state. Fighting terror with terror, he argued, would never work, and in response, the government would merely try to escalate its own efforts, rather than reexamining its methods. Diskin believes that, while Israeli hasn’t yet become a “Shin Bet state,” it’s close. And what does it say that this man, and not some college activist, thinks this?

Once the implications worm its way into one’s head, it becomes deeply troubling. The Gatekeepers is worthy of so much more than Oscar recognition. It needs to be seen and discussed. People need to be thinking about this – not just Israelis, either. Americans especially have to consider whether we’re close to a “Shin Bet state.”

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