We often mark our lives in moments, red-letter dates to establish touchstones for our progress through the world. Growing up in a news- and politically savvy household, I was still barely have been too young to appreciate the magnitude of Robert Kennedy's assassination. All I remember is a TV vigil flush with interviews that intruded on my Mattel fixation, and then having my Massachusetts-reared father yell at us on our Florida-within-Florida vacation trip, a day after hearing the news. It didn't register. That was 1968. I wasn't yet 5.
But the Munich Massacre registered, all right. Damn Skippy, it did. Munich -- so compressed, so violent, so unrelenting -- landed like an extended kick in the balls. If you weren't somewhat aware of the world by 1972, the Summer Olympic Games took care of that. If you didn't understand the meaning of the words "terror" or "terrorist" before, you did by then. And, sadly, if you didn't know about Palestine, you sure as hell did by then.
There is one of many chilling moments in One Day in September, Kevin Macdonald's Oscar-winning 1999 documentary re-released Tuesday on DVD, in which the lone surviving member of the Black September group that murdered 11 Israeli Olympic athletes, Jamal Al Gashey, steadfastly insists that the mission was a success. Tragically, he's right and wrong all at once, because the murder of the Israeli athletes upped the ante on both levels for the Palestinians. It gave them an international forum to explain their horrid plight in the face of Israeli settlements, particularly following the Six-Day War in 1967 that even today reveals its legacy. But it also showed the Palestinians as monsters. It showed them as terrorists, and more than ever the chicken-egg debate was fueled; does one become a terrorist because he's inherently evil or because drastic circumstances call for drastic measures? Interesting, isn't it, how 30 years later, with 9/11 and Iraq still present in our consciousness, that question remains unanswered.
At first glance Macdonald's film is a competent work at best. After all, ABC's stellar coverage of the event -- remember Jim McKay? Peter Jennings? -- provides much of the footage. Much of it is colorized by actor Michael Douglas' deadpan, economic narration. But Macdonald knows how to let the tension increase with only minimal technique, thereby absolving him of any accusations of audience manipulation. We were, after all, manipulated for that very dreadful day by reality; we didn't need much help. But for the uninitiated, Macdonald obliges a bit, playing with the pressure-release valve as he sees fit -- particularly with a soundtrack complete with Led Zeppelin's most unrelenting tune ("Immigrant Song"), an intentionally dated LCD clock that actually "ticks," and little montage digressions into the actual Olympic events.
Macdonald is at his best when he loosens that pressure-release valve to reveal one Murphy's Law moment after another, in almost perfect sequence. From start to finish, the documentary lays bare the failures: West Germany's over-eagerness to compensate for its horrid past with a laxness that left it vulnerable to a terrorist attack; local and national government ignorance of the Palestinian resolve; those same governments' failure to appreciate not only Israel's refusal to negotiate with terrorists but also its refusal to allow the more qualified Israelis to send a tactical assault unit, allowing only an observer; and a series of missteps too numerous and mind-boggling to mention in this space but really what make this film tick. I'll let you watch, and squirm.
If there is one lesson to be learned from the Munich Massacre, it's that desperation is non-negotiable. You think you can "handle" it, even defeat it, but you can't. You find yourself in what seems like a never-ending, bifurcated world, where like with capital punishment you're constantly at war with the illness and the symptom with no sense of how to prioritize. The 1986 TV movie, Sword of Gideon, and Steven Spielberg's upcoming film, Munich, explore the Israeli security force Mossad's retribution assassinations of two of the surviving terrorists and their collaborators.
I'm not sure if the Munich Massacre was my political awakening. The Robert Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam War, the 1972 presidential campaign and some vague reference to Watergate should have been enough to wake up even an 8-year-old. I just know that it snapped me to.
Even now, 33 years later, that grainy, ski-masked figure still haunts me. Not even the crumbling of the World Trade Center, the smashing of the Pentagon, the crushed streak of Pennsylvania farmland or even the lighting of the Baghdad sky can supplant that image. Because even an 8-year-old can feel the sting of death so swift, so compressed, so violent, so unfeeling, so non-negotiable. For me, that's terror.