TERRORISM: Horror and Death at the Olympics

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Could the tragedy have turned out differently? Once the basic policy decisions had been made—not to release Arab prisoners in Israel for the hostages in Munich, not to allow the terrorists to leave the country with their Israeli captives—there was no choice but to try to stop the Black September gang by force. The decision not to trade off prisoners was up to Israel alone. Although the confrontation was in Germany, the hostages were Jews and the West Germans bear such a psychological burden of guilt from the past that they felt that they had to defer to Israel. Jerusalem intervened early in the decision-making with telephone calls, cables—and the dispatch of two high Israeli intelligence officers who sat in with the West German government officials from about 2 p.m. until the end. Mrs. Meir later shared the burden with the West Germans, publicly thanking them for their decision "to take action for the liberation of the Israeli hostages and to employ force to that end."

The final decision to stage an ambush was based on the West German conviction that if the terrorists were allowed to fly out with the hostages, they would shoot their prisoners elsewhere. The Arabs had told them that they would shoot them next morning if Israel had not released its prisoners. That was probably indeed the Black September gang's intent—but there is still room for a nagging doubt. The Arabs, after all, had ignored their own ultimatums and let their deadlines go by before —and the hostages were worth more to them alive than dead. Presumably, the terrorists still wanted to trade their captives for imprisoned comrades.

The real fault was in the bungled execution of the basic decision. The police operation was badly mismanaged, and that failure was compounded by a lack of zeal in the task. Bavarian police were seemingly determined to carry off the ambush without loss of German life, though they were unsuccessful even in that. "If you want to know what I reproach myself for," Schreiber told a press conference afterward, "it is that I had to sacrifice one of my officers." He added quickly, "And that innocent Israeli athletes died." Such an attitude made a bold operation impossible. There was also a question of pride. The Israelis have had considerable experience in dealing with terrorists, but their intelligence men on the scene were allowed only a liaison role.

Impossible Task. German planning, as it turned out, was inadequate —and German caution led to disaster. The five sharpshooters at the airport were expected to stop eight men as rapidly as possible under bad lighting conditions—an impossible task. The small German force of police held back for more than an hour after the first shots were fired. Some of the 500 German soldiers on hand, who were under control of Interior Minister Bruno Merk of the Bavarian government, were being used to control crowds on the perimeter of the airfield. They would have been more usefully employed in assaulting the helicopters. By holding back after committing themselves, the Germans wasted their advantage of surprise.

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