Although it would be still a few more years before 24/7 news cycle, the 1972 Munich Olympics and the subsequent hostage crisis unfolded live on televisions around the globe. On 5th September — right in the middle of the Games — terrorists sympathizers of the Palestinian cause broke into the Olympic Village and kidnapped members of the Israeli Olympic squad. Although the security service prepared itself theoretically for such an event (the infamous Sieber scenario 21), the police didn’t realize that the kidnappers would able to follow their reactions and plans by simply turning on television sets.
The above photo of the hooded terrorist on the balcony of the Israelis’ hotel room, taken by AP’s Kurt Strumpf, is considered to be one of the defining images of international terrorism. Clad in a nondescript pull-over, his face hidden by a sinister looking balaclava with cut-out slits for eyes, he looked more like a dehumanized monster than a young man from a Palestinian refugee camp that he was. We don’t know for certain who he was, yet this faceless individual personified the very image of the modern terrorist: someone who is not like us, does not look like us, and comes from some faraway place of which we knew little; someone different, alien, and inherently evil.
Two athletes were already killed before the hostage crisis progressed to a military airport at Fürstenfeldbruck, where a failed rescue attempt ended up with nine remaining hostages dead . The Games continued during the crisis, but eventually they were halted for a few hours. There was a move to cancel the rest of the Games, but they continued, a decision which the Israeli authorities supported. When the Games re-started, it began with mournfully tunes from Beethoven and a memorial service held in the Olympic Stadium.
After every Olympics, organizers publish an official report; Munich’s one was “Teutonically comprehensive”, but recounted the atrocity in “dispassionate, mostly exculpatory prose”, according to Time magazine, ending with a “grotesque rationalization”. The organizers wrote: “After the terrible events of September 5, 1972, it was once again the atmosphere of the Olympic Village which contributed a great deal to calming down and preserving peace among the athletes.” Left unsaid of course were unsightly stories of a New Zealand weightlifter who took a Polaroid snapshot not different from Strumpf’s photo above and spent the rest of the game trying to sell the photo and of ten nations which vehemently refused to let their flags fly at half-mast.
For better or for worse, the hostage crisis brought the Palestinian cause to the world’s attention. It’s hard to imagine it now, but at the time of Munich, the Palestinians were still a forgotten people. Israeli prime minister Golda Meir insisted they did not exist, and all the footage from 1972 never used the word “Palestinian”; the gunmen were simply “Arabs.”