Since September 5, 1972, Munich has become both a verb
and a noun. A place and an idea. A vicinity and a tragedy. On that dreadful day, the Olympic
Village became, to use media guru Marshall McLuhan's phrase, the Global Village. It was the opening
salvo in an electronic environment where, like it or not, everybody unavoidably knew everybody
else's business - the age of televised terror.
This week, Munich the movie, by Academy-award winning director Steven Spielberg, opens in widespread
release around America. It's fitting that the film initially opened Christmas in select cities. For
as new era in human history began in that manger over 2000 years ago, a terrifying new reality in
modern times began in the Olympic Village in Munich 33 years ago.
Unlike kidnappings, bombs, or hijackings of the past, what happened in Munich, using the Olympics as
a venue, was a new kind of terror. One in which the media became a messenger. As Adu Daoud, one of
the masterminds of Munich, later said, "the Palestinians did succeed in dragging their cause into
500 million households... it served as a gesture that forced the Palestinian cause to the forefront."
As the late Peter Jennings, then covering the Olympics for ABC News, reflected, "we just stayed
right on that shot... it just went on and on." And the world watched in horror.
Before taking members of the Israeli team hostage at Munich in 1972, the PLO, and its splinter group
Black September, were virtually unknown to the world. But as TV cameras flashed pictures of the
hooded gunmen, the botched rescue, and the standoff at Olympic Village, all over the world, they
became, as Osama bin Laden would with his hectoring videotaped messages years later, the face of
International terrorism. Everyone knew their methods and their cause now, just as Al-Qaeda leapt to
the forefront of international terror as the vivid images of the planes crashing into the towers of
the WTC shocked the world.
You can draw a direct line in terms of impact, trauma, and intent from the terror at the Munich
Olympics to September 11, 2001. The terrorists do. Soon after 9/11, one website frequented by
Al-Qaeda operatives called the attacks "an even greater propaganda coup... than the Munich operation."
Just one day into the 2005 G8 summit in Scotland, the bombing of the London Underground, and the
carnage it spawned, showed the world how vulnerable statesmen, despite the phalanx of security that
surrounded them, and fellow citizens could be to an attack. Like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's hooded gangs
who kidnap and behead Westerners and their supporters today in Iraq and display the consequences on
the Internet - it's terror and bloodshed staged for the camera's eye to galvanize the terrorists and
to send fear around the world.
In 1970, Abba Eban, then the Israeli Foreign Minister, said, "history teaches us that men and
nations behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives." It was a wise comment on
the realities of the world from a seasoned diplomat. Two years later, in its own self-defense and
that of its citizens, Israel, however, was not afraid to neglect diplomatic dances and recognize
that there was no alternative but to confront terror directly.
Spielberg's film is a sweeping examination not so much of the murderous events of the Munich
Olympics but the 'long dark night of the soul" he perceives at the heart of the Israeli response. In
the film, as the Israeli team goes after those responsible for Munich, they start to ask themselves
"What does the hunting of one's enemies do to a man?" and "Do we become what we despise?"
The answers, like the questions, can be uncomfortable, but are periodically necessary.
As are the responses. The operative term is not vengeance, coincidentally the title of the 1984 book
on which slabs of Spielberg's film are based, but vigilance.
It is vigilance more critical than the hourly media cycle. Revelations of President Bush's
authorization, in the context of the War on Terror, of the National Security Agency's interception
of telephone calls and other forms of communication in and out of the country has, as Vice-President
Cheney mentioned to reporters just before Christmas, roots in the legislative backlash against
Watergate, Vietnam, and early 70s perceptions of an "Imperial Presidency." Like Munich, it is a
legacy with real meaning in today's world. Also like Munich, it is a legacy that evolves with
circumstance and finesse.
In the face of another Munich, the Israel of 2005 might react very differently than the Israel of
1972. The America of 2005 has to act differently than the America of 1972 because of what we learned
at Munich. It is a reality often conducted far from the camera's eye, but make no mistake, like in
'72, the world is watching.
- January 6, 2006