In 1972, I watched with horror and, I admit, some dark fascination, as ABC sports anchor Jim McKay described the capture, holding and ultimate death of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches.
It was my first exposure to the concept of political terrorism. I was, of cource, familiar with civil disobedience as a tool of revolution, and history is replete with horrible wars and acts of savagery performed in the name of nationalism.
But this incident was different.
A tiny group of individuals, willing to die for a cause, and willing to kill on behalf of it, captured the stage of world attention through the hijacking of a media event. McKay stayed on the air for 16 hours as he and I and much of America watched hooded terrorists conducting shouted negotiations from the concrete balconies of the Olympic Village, an image that seemed to me both inane and horrific. Without the ski masks to tell criminal from hostage, and the occasional glimpse of weapons, the scene could have been from a vacation album.
There was no mistaking the horror, however, of the night time scene at the Munich airport. Television cameras only captured a dim outline of a plane and the bus carrying terrorists and hostages to it. You couldn’t see anything but blurs.
Jim McKay finally gave us the news we all feared, but all expected. “They’re all gone,” he said in that tired, sad voice I will never forget as we all learned that a military attempt to overcome the terrorists and free the hostages went wrong and all 11 of the Isralis had died.
Our world changed in front of us that day because of what was mostly accidental coverage.
Bad people learned that with training, willingness to die, and some luck, they could gain more support or hate for their cause in one day than a lifetime of unwitnessed, random acts could accomplish. The events of September 11 in the United States are the direct offspring of those hooded terrorists pushing young athletes to the edge of that balcony in Munich.
The impact media has had on our lives also changed that day. We now live in a world, forshadowed by this event, where cameras are everywhere and live video of private and hugely public events are easily broadcast on the Internet. Where in 1972, coverage of a speech by an America presidential candidate was limited to three networks and a handful of press photographers holding their motorized Nikons over their heads, Barack Obama’s every public appearance is captured by hundreds of camera phones uploading live to Qik or Flickr.
McKay and all of us made history that day.