Munich '72

Munich Massacre (10:26)

On September 5, 1972, eleven Israeli athletes were taken hostage by Palestinian terrorists at the Summer Olympics in Munich and later killed during a botched rescue attempt at a nearby airport. It remains one of the worst moments in world sports' history. (10:26)

Sometimes after a day or a week or a year, you can make sense of a thing. Sometimes not. Forty years later, this is one of those -- a story just out of reach. Senseless. I'm old enough to remember what happened and how it felt to see it, but I don't. Not really. I imagine now it felt like falling. Being frightened feels to me like falling.

Connollystrasse 31 is ordinary. Faceless. Broad bland panels of glass and concrete. Like other late modernist buildings, it promises a future that never got here. Clean, peaceful, safe. A right-angle life lived by two-dimensional figures under a watercolor sun in an architectural sketch. It's a 10-minute walk from the subway. Without noticing it, you'll pass the spot where Black September jumped the fence.

Ride the U3 out from the Odeonsplatz, and you ride from the sharp truths of Munich's past into the long-gone untruth of that impossible future. Up the stairs from the Olympic station is BMW world headquarters. Behind you is the cabled steel drapery of the Olympiastadion in the Olympiapark. In front of you is the Olympic Village.

I'm here because I can't remember what it felt like for a day and a night 40 years ago. I watched it all, but what I remember of it now isn't memory, it's the four-decade sum of mechanical reproduction. It's the ABC video archive and the grainy front page of a microfilmed Times, it's the photo morgue at The Associated Press and a stack of books and a dozen documentaries and Spielberg's "Munich," and what I remember isn't what I remember at all. It's what I've been taught to remember. It's Jim McKay, exhausted, speaking on behalf of the 20th century. "They're all gone." I was 14 that summer.

Munich recalibrated our international night terrors, and joined the inventory of American horrors that ran straight from JFK and MLK and RFK to My Lai and Tate-LaBianca and Kent State. It was the new age of political blood or maybe it was the Stone Age, but falling was the constant then, like gravity, the sick acceleration as the floor dropped away beneath you and me and Brezhnev and Donna Reed. Maybe that's how I felt.

If you need the real history or the minute-by-minute tick-tock of Sept. 5 and 6 in Munich 1972, find them here and here. If you want to know how Germany failed itself and failed the rest of us, read this summer's Der Spiegel here and here and here.

I'm often in Munich, and I ride the U-bahn to what was once the Olympic Village every time. It's student housing now, drying laundry everywhere hung like bunting and the smell of damp cement and old roast chicken. I walk and I watch and I sit for a while in front of Connollystrasse 31. I'm never sure why. Curiosity, morbidity, elegy; to pay respects, to say goodbye, to get a look at myself at 14. There's only a small memorial sign by the door. I'm always alone. To Americans like me, Europe is still mostly train whistles and strange licorice, but you can find in this exact spot everything the West became or did not become since the night of those murders.

Even under protest, there was no official 40-year commemoration at the London Olympics, no moment of official silence, no official Olympic mention of Israel or Palestine. Maybe too many things have happened on too many days and the calendar is already choked with celebrations or the roll calls of our dead. No one wants to open old wounds. No one wants a remembrance of violence. Or maybe no one wants reminding that no place is safe.

Odd then to recall de Coubertin's modern Olympics are a kind of military proficiency test, heavy on the shooting and swordplay and cavalry sports. What lesson, what message did he intend? Faster, higher, stronger, sure. But on behalf of what?

In Berlin I've walked the Olympiastadion of 1936, and run my fingertips along its rough shell limestone, and felt the seductions of its monumentality and symmetry and promise of perfect, unthinking order. Seventy-five years later it's a standing blueprint for the terrible beauty of fascism, for the absolutism of the state and the annihilation of the individual. The '36 Olympics were themselves a kind of terrorism, a warning from Hitler and the Reich of what lay ahead for everyone.

The Olympics are an ambition, a fantasy of what we might become. And an awful reminder of who we are. Past and future, sports and terror and politics and war, our best and our worst, indivisible. As if the world hadn't moved an inch in 2,000 years.

Connollystrasse 31. You come here to hang on. You come here to let go. History is blood and the naming of the dead. Since that day and that night 40 years ago, the world and everything in it have spun another 20 billion miles through the void. Every one of us in every moment falling 18 miles a second.

I come here to authenticate my fear.

They're all gone. Only the names remain.

David Berger
Ze'ev Friedman
Yossef Gutfreund
Eliezer Halfin
Yossef Romano
Amitzur Shapira
Kehat Shorr
Mark Slavin
Andre Spitzer
Yakov Springer
Moshe Weinberg

Too loud in the quiet, I read each name. Then turn and carry them away.