Where were we on September 5, 1972? I was in Niagara Falls, New York. Our first military assignment after we got married. A small Air Force base on the border to Canada and in the middle of nowhere. The 1972 Olympics were being watched by close to 900 million people. This was Germany’s time to rise above the horrors of the Holocaust and the subsequent Cold War it was thrown into. The Munich Games were the redemption card for the country.
Germany took pains to promote the games as non-political and emphasizing on unity, peace, and diversity. The games were supposed to disperse the ghosts of 1936 and Hitler’s Aryan superiority. Of course Jesse Owens crushed that myth. 1972 was going to be the year when we forgive, we unite, we enjoy, we honor, while leisurely watching athletes compete, flags wave, and anthems play. A Kumbaya moment for a world still wrapped up in Vietnam, and on the brink of nuclear war as two superpowers try not to annihilate one another. For a few weeks, we looked forward to the courage and stamina of men and women reaching for the gold. A test of human endurance and discipline. A chance to bring out the best in us when often living among the worst.
That was the world stage in 1972. But the world, especially elements in the Middle East, wanted none of the humane intent that unites or forgives. Revenge, hatred, and the destruction of Israel was the agenda of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Risen in 1964 allegedly to unite dispersed Arabs, it morphed into a terrorist organization bent on destroying Israel and its inhabitants whether at home or abroad. After the Arab defeat of 1968, the PLO’s mission in life was to eradicate Israel. There was no subtleness in the intent. Terrorist bombings and air hijackings became frequent in a feeble attempt to force Israel in releasing terrorist prisoners, and the world to come on board with the “plight of Palestine” narrative.
In 1972, the PLO asked the Munich Olympic Committee’s permission to participate in the games. The committee who probably assumed that the PLO would like to use the Olympic Games as media exposure toward their cause, rightly refused. Black September, a more radical and militant faction of the PLO thought otherwise and took matters in their own hands. Early on the morning of September 5, 1972, Black September terrorists shot their way into the Israeli compound and a 23-hour long standoff ensued.
By 0500 on September 5, 1972, the terrorists had already killed two of the Israeli coaches and injured others on the 11-man team. They demanded the release of 234 Arab prisoners held in Israel, and two German terrorist prisoners held in Germany. This was the beginning of reality TV at its worst. We watched live as masked terrorists waved guns on balconies, and rescue attempts were made. The terrorists demanded a plane to fly the hostages to Egypt. In the meantime, German forces devised a rescue mission which regrettably went awry right from the start. The German authorities did not cut off the power to the compound and the terrorists watched the rescue team’s attempt to get to the hostages live on television. In the meantime, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, refused to negotiate with the terrorists, saying that in doing so, no Israeli life would ever be safe anywhere in the world.
The hostages were eventually taken to Furstenfeldbruck airbase, where a jet was waiting. Unfortunately, the German snipers inexperienced, ill equipped, and without communication, opened indiscriminate fire and a West German policeman Anton Fliegerbauer, and all the hostages were killed in the cross fire. The hostages were still bound in their seats on helicopters Five terrorists died and three captured alive.
I remember Jim McKay of ABC news cutting into the prime-time broadcast, emotional uttering just three words: They’re all gone. There was noting more to say. The world watched in horror unable to comprehend such systematic hatred bent on eradicating innocent people just because of who they were and where they came from.
The games were postponed for 34 hours. A memorial service was attended by 3,000 athletes and 80,000 spectators. After the service, the rest of the Israeli group left, as did Mark Spitz, the US 7-gold medalist swimmer, and the teams from Egypt, Philippines, and Algeria.
The Munich massacre was the first act of terrorism to be televised live. It was also the first time that terrorists used the media to further a cause. Mark Juergensmeyer, an American Scholar calls terrorism “performance violence”. Regardless of whether successful or not, coverage is all that terrorists desire. Notoriety puts them on the map. But Mark goes further to say that the theater of terrorism is performed where there are the most spectators sitting in the most seats. Years later we ponder. Why did 9/11 terrorists pick NYC, and the Pentagon, and if it weren’t for the courage of the passengers of Flight 93, the Capitol? Coverage.
Media success is measured by the number of viewers, who generate the number of sponsors, who raise the bottom line. Nowadays, the media doesn’t just report, it over reports. Point in fact, the coverage of last year’s May missile attacks on Israel. Coverage was completely biased in favor of the Palestinians because of civilian casualties. Instead of reporting that Israel was attacked by more than 3000 missiles, they reported that over 200 civilians died across the border. But no mention of Hamas not protecting its people, their own missiles malfunctioning and killing Palestinian civilians, or that armaments are routinely stored by in civilian buildings, was ever mentioned or reported. If more Israelis had died, then the media might have budged. Regretfully, Israel protects its population. Go figure.
Priceonomics researcher Nemil Dala states that “regardless of the reason, currently terrorism deaths are the single most covered type of death per capita in the first page of the New York Times…” this is in comparison to any other death that is reported. In 1985, the late Margaret Thatcher wanted to create a voluntary code of ethics for journalists and the media when reporting terrorism. She opined that the more publicity we give them, the more they crave and cause more death, “starve terrorists…of the oxygen of publicity.” Scholar Michael Jetter alleges that media reporting elicits terrorist attacks. When mainstream media reports or over reports an attack, attacks the following week tend to increase by 1.4. But shouldn’t the media be telling the truth? When Margaret Thatcher made her statement in 1985, then NBC President Larry Grossman said that the media’s job is “…not to worry about the consequences but to tell the truth…let the chips fall where they may.” Currently, the media reports its own version of “the truth”.
Fifty years later, we ponder, we question, we try to make sense of it all. Less than 30 years after the Holocaust, Israel sent its biggest group of athletes to compete in Germany. Some were older Eastern European who had memories of other not so pleasant times in Germany. They still bore the physical and mental scars. Israel had misgivings about security at the games, and a 1972 New York Times report talked about “glaring” security measures that eventually led to the terrorists having easy access to the athletes. But out of the ashes of evil rises some good. The 1972 Olympic massacre opened the door to serious security considerations and measures not only at future Olympic Games, but other large international venues.
For those of us who were old enough and still remember the tragedy, also remember the pain we inadvertently felt. It was a global sigh of sorrow. Sorrow for loosing the athletes, sorrow for Israel’s loss, and sorrow for the world.. Evil played out on our screens, into our living rooms and in our personal lives. We felt compelled to hold our loved ones tighter protecting them from what we had witnessed lest it happens again while knowing full well that most probably it will. 9/11 comes to mind.
McEvoy, B., Kulesh, A., Cooper, R. Terrorism at the Munich Olympic games: how an event five decades ago has a lasting impact today | documentary Channel (cbc.ca)