In 1972 at Munich, Mark Spitz hauls in more gold medals in a single Olympiad than any athlete before or after, while our nation finds a Russian sweetheart in pigtailed pixie gymnast Olga Korbut. But then horror: Palestinian terrorists break into the Olympic village, kill Israeli wrestling coach Moshe Weinberg and weight lifter Joseph Romano and take nine other Israelis hostage, murdering them as well 21 hours later. This story of terror at the 1972 Olympics is the subject of Kevin Macdonald's One Day in September, which won last year's Academy Award for best documentary. The movie is at once a revelation and a disappointment, revealing details of astonishing incompetence that had never before come to wide knowledge, but at the same time failing to ask, much less answer, crucial questions.
The fanatical group that called itself Black September snuck into the Olympic village shortly before 5 a.m. on Sept. 5. After killing their first two victims, they threatened to slay their nine hostages by noon if 236 political prisoners, mostly in Israel, were not freed. Predictably, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, citing the long-established policy of her country, refused to negotiate with the terrorists in any way. The Israelis did request permission to send in a rescue team, but this proposal was rejected by the West Germans despite the fact that they lacked a SWAT unit themselves. Instead, the Germans offered the terrorists money, but were refused, and then Interior Minister Hans Dietrich Genscher bravely offered to take the place of the hostages but was refused again. Eventually, the negotiators convinced the terrorists to extend their deadline to 5 p.m., but this success was falsely hopeful and extremely short-lived.
After an almost pathetic attempt to lure the terrorists into the open with boxes of food, the Germans devised a haphazard rescue plan which recruited two dozen volunteers, dressed in warm-up suits and armed with pistols. Just as this almost assuredly disastrous assault was about to be launched, however, the Germans realized that the terrorists were watching their preparations on television, since no one had thought either to order TV film crews from the hostage site or to cut power to the terrorist apartment. From there, incredibly, things got worse.
Black September refused to extend the deadline again and suddenly demanded a plane to fly them to an Arab country. The Germans agreed, hoping to stage an ambush at the airport. But their preparations were an appalling failure, and their communications were almost non-existent. Without the benefit of helmets or bullet-proof vests, only five police sharpshooters were deployed to fight eight terrorists, and one of the five was positioned so that he couldn't move without placing himself in the line of fire from comrades behind him. A squad on the aircraft dressed as members of the flight crew decided their mission was too dangerous and fled into the night without notifying either their own superiors or the snipers with whom they were supposed to be working. When a firefight broke out on the tarmac, German authorities didn't call for back-up for nearly half an hour, and reinforcements didn't show up for 60 minutes after that. When they did finally arrive, they first opened fire on, and severely wounded, two of their own men.
The fatal disorganization by the West German police and military authorities is so astounding you want to cry out in dismay, and, in eliciting such emotion, the film proves entirely successful. But we need background the film doesn't provide. Today we are so used to the drama of hostage scenes with highly trained negotiators, tested tactics of response and legions of snipers, we forget that SWAT units are a relatively recent development. In 1972, was West Germany typically ill-prepared or shamefully behind the anti-terrorist curve?
Two other failings of One Day in September bother me even more. Why do we meet only four of the 11 Israelis who died in this tragedy: Weinberg, Romano, weight-lifting coach Jacov Springer and fencing coach Andre Spitzer? I hungered for more personal information about all those who died that day. I am, of course, revolted that the slain terrorists were treated as heroes in Libya and repulsed that the sole survivor proclaims personal pride and political accomplishment in taking 11 innocent lives. But I nonetheless recoil at the film's invitation to take solace in the fact that Mossad has assassinated two of the three original surviving terrorists. Blood begets blood, and the long history of bloodshed in the Holy Land didn't begin in 1972 any more than it ended with the Camp David peace accords or Bill Clinton's frantic mediation earlier this year. If the dying is to stop, however painful, the past must be consigned to the past.