THE FILM HISTORIAN DONALD RICHIE, writing about the classic film Rashomon’s exploration of subjectivity and perspective, once explained “each interpretation is different because, in the telling and in the retelling, the people reveal not the action but themselves.” This is an even grimmer truth in Death in the Terminal, whose true story unspools in a state of selves riven by collective suspicion, religion, ethnicity, and national origin. (Watch the film here; and be warned, if you haven’t seen it, you risk some spoilers below.)
These are people who happened to be at the bus station in Be’er Sheva, in southern Israel, that October day. What else would have brought together Jews of European and Middle Eastern origin, Bedouin citizens of Israel, and an Eritrean asylum seeker? Even people living in a country with too much history, and where bus stations can be death traps, have ordinary days where they buy their ticket and wait.
The beauty, and the brutality, of Death in the Terminal is that it forces us to feel the fear of that moment where the gunshots begin, and then to watch and listen, in dread, without having all the pieces of the puzzle. Soon, we wonder if anyone is telling the truth, and if the videos can tell us anything anyway. We begin to understand that this is not just about where each person happened to be standing or the decision they made in a frenzied and terrifying moment. It is also about who is free to speak and who is presumed a danger.
We know that the first to be shot is a soldier, and we are in a country where soldiers are the protectors or the sacrificial lambs or the tormentors, in which the nature of the existential threat depends on who is doing the naming. We learn there really is a terrorist, somewhere, with a gun or knife; how are these people, in that moment, to know how many there are and who the man crumpled on the ground really is?
The prison guard Ronen Cohen: When he runs in the direction of gunshots, is he a hero? Or maybe he’s like a man barreling toward a bar fight. They didn’t hurl the bench at the gravely injured man, explains Cohen, they just placed it on him for safety reasons. Well, see for yourself. See it backwards, forwards, on surveillance footage, on camera phone. We get the chance to repeat, to scrutinize, to watch safely from our seats. No doubt they cross a line from self-defense into sadism, but when?
The tragic stupidity and imprecision of racism is that these enemies are close enough that even the practiced have trouble telling them apart. If Israeli Jews are mistakenly attacking each other—Jews whose parents fled the Middle East and North Africa answering for stabbings perpetrated by Palestinian Muslims—it’s not so surprising that the chaos of an attack puts a quiet young Eritrean refugee in the crosshairs. Zerhom was one of tens of thousands of his countrymen who came to Israel seeking refuge from forced and endless conscription, whose status in the country is at best uncertain, and often worse than that.
He doesn’t look like a terrorist. The first to realize this is Hosni Komaz, a man selling falafel. It glumly dawns on us why he kept silent. If I were Jewish, he says, he would have spoken, but he feared the crowd turning on him.
A Jewish man, Moshe Kochavi, a kibbutz volunteer, did speak. At first, listening to the kibbutznik, having seen him, astonishingly, raise his arms to repel the chair throwers and the spitters, you expect a defense of the dignity of even terrorists. But no. “He’s a terrorist and he needs to die,” Kochavi says with disarming calmness. It was the bystanders he needed to save, from themselves, “corrupting, in this very moment, their soul.”
He did not succeed in saving them, and it was too late for Habtom Zerhom. The next day the kibbutznik returns to the station. He squats in the place of the murder and the torture, and later, to us, pronounces himself ready to move on. Are we?
Watch the film here.