The London Olympics began with great hoopla two weeks ago. The spectacular opening had the Queen escorted by James Bond, wildly dancing nurses and flying Mary Poppins figures. It had Paul McCartney and J.K. Rowling, a Scottish village, a Shakespearean reading, and an Olympic torch that had traveled 8,000 miles in a boat. It had everything, except the one thing it should have had — a minute of silence for the 11 Israeli athletes murdered at the German Olympics 40 years ago.
Jewish groups had petitioned the International Olympic Committee for months to have that commemoration of the 1972 Munich massacre, only to be told that such a tragic remembrance was “not fit” for the atmosphere of the opening ceremony. For shame. With its decision, the IOC missed an opportunity to make a new generation aware of a dark time in Olympic history that must never be forgotten.
The events have been recounted many times: how the Palestinian terrorist group Black September seized the Israeli athletes, killed two and took the others hostage; how the Germans botched a rescue attempt, leading to the death of all the hostages; and how, later, in exchange for an airplane that had been hijacked, German authorities freed the three gunmen they had captured. It is a story of innocent young athletes whose lives were cut short by terrorists, and of the ineptitude of a host country.
But there is also another story we need to remember as we remember the Olympic athletes of 1972, the story of Israel’s follow-up to the tragedy. Some call it a narrative of revenge for the past; others say it is about prevention and deterrence for the future. Either way, nobody can deny that this was a watershed moment in Israel’s history, and changed the way nations everywhere came to respond to terrorism.
Golda Meir was prime minister of Israel then. Zvi Zamir headed the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency. He and Aharon Yariv, Meir’s counter-terrorism adviser, came to her with a plan to target and kill anyone directly or indirectly connected to the Munich murders. Although there had been occasional targeted killings before this, Israel had never before undertaken an operation of this scale. Several books and the film, “Munich,” which Steven Spielberg directed some years ago, purport to give details of the operation, but almost all of them have it wrong, according to Zamir, whom I have interviewed. Rather than initiating the project, as Golda had been portrayed doing, she was very hesitant at first. She had been reluctant before this to strike at terrorists on European soil, even though Europe’s countries had been lax in providing security for Israelis. She didn’t want her “boys” involved in illegal activities abroad, and worried about what might happen if one of them got caught. When plans for the targeted killings were presented, she pointed out also that they would be hitting people who had never been tried in a court. But the shock and cold-blooded horror of the Munich disaster convinced her to go ahead.
The process of choosing a target was highly secretive. Generally, Zamir and Yariv would present a name to Golda and argue their case for why that person needed to be taken out. She and a few select members of her cabinet — a tribunal that came to be known as Committee X — would weigh the evidence and make a decision. The final approval was up to her. Over the next several years, often at great risks to themselves, Israeli operatives hunted down terrorists they believed might attack Israelis or organize such attacks. “This was not about vengeance,” Zamir insists. “We were looking to spoil terrorist activities, not just pay back those involved in Munich. And at the time we succeeded.”
Much has changed since the 1970s. But some things have not. On May 1, 2011, President Obama announced that Navy SEALS had killed Osama bin Laden in his compound in Pakistan. Most people cheered the news. Some argued, however, that the al Qaeda leader should have been taken alive and tried by a court of law. Others accused America of stooping to the terrorist tactics he had used. Pakistan complained that the United States had violated its sovereignty by unilaterally attacking him on their soil. Targeted assassinations, whether 40 years ago or today, raise these and other issues. Do they really deter terrorists or do they simply satisfy our need for revenge? Doesn’t a successor quickly replace a terrorist who has been eliminated? And, most troubling, haven’t such killings set off a wave of retaliations from terrorist groups?
The issues are complicated, and only those in charge can make the decisions. Yet Israel’s follow-up to Munich sent a message around the world that still holds. Retribution awaits those involved in terrorism. No matter how long it may take.
Francine Klagsbrun is writing a biography of Golda Meir. Her most recent book is “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day.”