Yesterday was the opening of controversial opera “The Death of Klinghoffer” at New York’s Lincoln Center. The occasion was marked by turmoil:

Demonstrators, primarily associated with Jewish groups, plan to rally outside Lincoln Center with 100 wheelchairs, in honor of the slain handicapped Leon Klinghoffer, on whom “The Death of Klinghoffer” is based.

Klinghoffer was hurled from the Achille Lauro cruise ship by PLO terrorists in 1985 after it was hijacked. The opera, which centers on the terrorists who perpetrated the murder, has been accused of glorifying terrorism and incorporating anti-Semitic tropes.

The Klinghoffer opera is not new; it was first produced in 1991, and has drawn protests wherever it goes.

I recall hearing the news of the hijacking and the shocking manner of Klinghoffer’s death at the time it occurred. But back then I was unaware of the almost immediate post-modern interest of some in understanding—empathizing with, and even sympathizing with—Klinghoffer’s murderers. In the years since, and especially post-9/11, such enabling attitudes have become only too common.

“The Death of Klinghoffer” is an example of the genre. In the olden days, an opera on such a theme might have featured the terrorists as traditional villains steeped in evil, with thunderous and dissonant music to signify the horror of what they did. But in this version they are given sonorous and lovely melodies to sing and sympathetic words to utter. But it wasn’t enough to portray the murderers in a sensitive light; the Klinghoffers and their associates are portrayed less nobly:

More than 20 years ago, in his review of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s premiere of the opera, The New York Times chief music critic, Edward Rothstein, questioned the presentation of Jews and Palestinian Arabs as “symmetrical victims of each other’s hatreds.” Rothstein later wrote that the opera’s depiction of its Jewish characters reduced them “to petty triviality” compared to their Palestinian counterparts.

The opera’s librettist, Alice Goodman, is an interesting tale herself. Born and raised as a Jew in Minnesota, educated in literature at Harvard, married to a British poet, she became an Anglican priest and opera librettist.

You can listen to Ms. Goodman discussing the opera here, in a BBC interview that features a selection from it sung by one of the terrorists. Without even being able to decipher the words of the libretto, just hearing the music and the voice of the kidnapper makes it clear that he is being given a respect and a certain esthetic elegance and dignity that could only serve to elevate him in the eyes of the listener.

Ms. Goodman’s answer to the question of whether the opera is anti-Semitic or an apology for terrorism is an interesting one. She says no (no surprise there); she believes that the charges of anti-Semitism and the rest are a result of her showing the terrorists as “human beings.”

Well, terrorists are most decidedly human beings, as were Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin, and—well, every other human being who’s ever lived. We all know how Hitler loved dogs, and was a vegetarian. To be evil does not require that one be a devil; being a human being who does evil will suffice. But considering terrorists human beings does not require giving them a forum by writing lovely arias for them to sing in explanation of their grievances as they see them.

Ms. Goodman says she speaks not just as the librettist, but as a priest, when she recognizes the perpetrators as human beings with ideals—wrongheaded, yes, but idealistic nevertheless—as though idealism somehow has a value in and of itself. She acknowledges that the music and the words she and her collaborator wrote for the terrorists who killed Klinghoffer were lyrical and heartfelt, and she understands that this fact created “a dissonance difficult for some people to take.”

Indeed. I guess we’re not all highly evolved enough to understand the convoluted mental gymnastics required in comprehending how that doesn’t constitute some sort of sympathy and apology—if not for the devil, then for the human beings who perpetrated this heinous act.

[Neo-neocon is a writer with degrees in law and family therapy, who blogs at neo-neocon.]