Given the horrors of war and scourges of bloody stupidity that have plagued the world in the past three decades, the murder by Palestinian terrorists of eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich now seems like a minor episode in the history of our collective folly -- a mere footnote to mass slaughters in Cambodia, Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and Eastern Europe. Those who can remember the tragic events of September 5, 1972, will likely recall but a few vague images: a shadowy, hooded figure darting onto a concrete balcony in the Olympic village, the weary voice of ABC Sports anchor Jim McKay bringing bad news to a stunned American TV audience, perhaps the placid visage of Avery Brundage, dictatorial former president of the International Olympic Committee, coldly declaring that the games must go on.
Thanks to documentary filmmaker Kevin Macdonald, the story of the massacre in Munich -- including some new wrinkles and fresh speculations -- has now been revived. Using old news footage, new interviews (including one with the sole surviving terrorist) and some dramatic editing, One Day in September reminds us how members of the ultra-revolutionist Arab group Black September took the Israelis hostage, then descended into violence and self-destruction at Munich's Furstenfeldbruck military airport when Prime Minister Golda Meir rejected their demand for the release of more than 200 political prisoners. The film is largely a rehash, but Macdonald (best known for documentary portraits of filmmakers Howard Hawks and Errol Morris) is also intent on providing some revelations.
Perhaps the most interesting detail we get here is a claim by gunman Jamal Al Gashey, interviewed last year in Aman and now in hiding "somewhere in Africa," that his team of eight terrorists gained entry to the Olympic village late on September 4 with the unwitting help of a group of drunken American Olympians who were sneaking back to their quarters after hours. The Americans, Gashey says, helped the Black Septembrists (who were dressed like athletes) over a perimeter fence in a mistaken spirit of fellow-feeling. Take this claim or leave it, but it's new.
One Day in September, Documentary
Produced by John Battsek and Arthur Cohn
Along with reminding us of the terrorists' single-minded zeal and recording the ongoing grief of the slain Israelis' families, Macdonald heaps criticism upon the West Germans -- for their ineptitude and for what he says is their corruption some months later. To be sure, German authorities in 1972 were unprepared for Olympic terrorism -- a pungent irony in light of their forebears' overwhelming gift for twentieth-century murder. When the so-called "Serene Games" erupted in violence, the defanged Munich police had no SWAT teams. A ploy to descend into cooling ducts and surprise the terrorists was botched as the terrorists watched the whole thing on East German television. The German performance at the airport, which involved a decoy jetliner and a clutch of ill-trained snipers, turned into a gory fiasco. Two hostages were killed in the village, and nine more died at Furstenfeldbruck, amid false news reports that all hands were safe. Misguided police even managed to gravely wound one of their own sharpshooters and a helicopter pilot.
Clumsiness is one thing, deceit another. Macdonald provides scant evidence for his final and most controversial claim, but here it is: Just months after the massacre, the West German government secretly colluded with the Palestinians in a faked Lufthansa airliner hijacking. The result was the release of the three surviving Black Septembrists (two of whom were assassinated in the late 1970s by Israeli intelligence) and, the Germans hoped, an end to bad publicity in 1972.
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True? Who knows. We are left with the galling figure of gunman Jamal Al Gashey, heavily disguised, declaring to the camera: "I'm proud of what I did at Munich." Thus ends this powerful lesson in bureaucratic denial, political extremism and raw tragedy.