The Death of Klinghoffer

January 12, 2010

The opera The Death of Klinghoffer is based on the real-life events of the hijacking of the liner Achille Lauro by the Palestinian Liberation Front in the mid-1980s, in which the Jewish passenger Klinghoffer was murdered by said terrorists.  It was written by post-minimalist composer John Adams.

The opera was composed in 1991 (I do not know when it made its American debut, exactly) and though at its premiere it garnered some criticisms from the viewers, it wasn’t until the events of 9/11 that it was brought into considerable attack by Richard Taruskin who claimed that Adams was romanticing terrorists (“If terrorism is to be defeated, world public opinion has to be turned decisively against it . . . no longer romanticising terrorists as Robin Hoods and no longer idealising their deeds as rough poetic justice”).  Others viewed the work as anti-Semitic or un-American.

However, there were those who championed the work, drawn to the idea of the human protrayal of terrorists rather than a black-and-white/good-and-evil mindset.  Some critics felt that Adams’ depiction of these terrorists as humans may help us broaden knowledge as to the underlying causes of violence.  And although one of the portrayals of the terrorists is almost touching and almost garners sympathy from the viewers, there is no question about the immorality of their actions–Klinghoffer’s brutal murder is shown on the stage, an event that still leaves its horrific scars on his spouse.

Should we consider that terrorists are human like the rest of us?  There is a definite danger, as Taruskin put, of romanticizing the terrorist but there is also a danger in purely putting them into the category of Animal.  For to do that means that our acceptance of people becomes limited, causing extreme nationalism to rear its head and cause us to think that people of a certain ethnicity are dangerous and righteous victims of hate crimes.   Where is the rightful balance between over-romanticizing criminals and understanding them?

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