Thank You Bob Costas for Remembering the Tragic Munich Olympics
Bob Costas asked the International Olympic Committee to have a moment of silence in memory of the slain Israeli athletes in the 1972 Munich Olympics. The IOC rejected the request offering the usual argument about not wanting to politicize the games, a standard they do not always hold themselves to. Costas, who should be commended for his courage and dignity, told the IOC that he was going to remember the moment anyway and is planning something for the opening ceremony.
I think this issue is important and worthy of some commentary. One of the problems with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that nothing seems to transcend the rank politics of the conflict. If I wrote a high-minded defense of Costas and thought that this tragedy deserved cultural and historical recognition most would simply dismiss it and categorize me as “another Israel supporter.” And the converse is true for those who might deny the request for recognition. They would be cavalierly cast as anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian. The consequence of this constant simplistic bifurcation of the conflict is that it becomes impossible to talk about anything else. This is certainly true of any notion of “truth.” One cannot even report in a straightforward descriptive manner what actually occurred during some political event. Everything is steeped in interpretive implications, and combine this with facile notions of the “social construction of reality” and nothing is what it seems. This is essentially the situation with contemporary American politics and the Tea Party. They are so concerned with ideological and political purity that any other form of talk resulting in true deliberation – the kind of deliberation where one side might actually learn something and adjust their opinions – is impossible.
But isn’t it possible to ask what sort of political act is actually deserving of memory and recognition. Isn’t it possible, regardless of what side of the political spectrum you occupy, to condemn group specific murder as unacceptable? Isn’t it possible for the Olympic Games, with its long history of fellowship and cultural cooperation to stand up for something as clearly odious as targeted murder of an ethnopolitical group within the context of the games? The killing of the Israeli athletes was not a disembodied violent act but one that was wrapped in Olympic significance.
The tragedy of the Munich Olympics, along with its enduring images, is truly a cultural collective memory that endures because of the kinship that surrounds participation in the Olympics. It is true enough that we construct our pasts with contemporary culture in mind but that is what simply keeps a historical occurrence alive with fresh meaning and relevant meaning.
There is a relationship between tragedy and historical meaning. A tragedy always connects culture, the social, and the visual physiological environment. And, perhaps more importantly, tragedy binds individuals to groups and community. Consequently, the events of the Munich Olympics have bound individual and groups and infused their membership in these groups with significance, a significance that sweeps through time and becomes part of history.
It’s important to commemorate and remember the horrific violence of the 1972 Munich Olympics because it has become a collective memory signifying the full sweep of political consciousness and conflict. Collective memories define group identities and signal people as to their individual identities. Remembering the Munich tragedy should prompt people to ask themselves who they are and what they will accept.
We should remember that there is competition for what is recalled and remembered in the past. Disagreements about remembering events are always hotly contested and one version of the story “wins out” over another and thus becomes a more dominant theme along with changing the historical story. Historical events that were once considered objectively, or as objectively as possible, become pawns in a game designed to manage the perception of reality. Memories and proper understanding of events are most contested and manipulated during periods of confusion and uncertainty. We are currently struggling with understanding political conflicts, anti-Semitism, nationalist struggles, and how to reconcile history with contemporary circumstances. This is especially true for the prototypical intractable conflict that is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
It is sometimes said that the past is manipulated in order to fashion the present. If that were true, why wouldn’t we want to recognize the horrific events of the 1972 Olympics in order to inform and sensitize the present?