The 1972 Munich Olympics

The assault and siege of the Olympic Village at the 1972 Munich summer games was triggered by a snub: Two letters had been sent to Olympic officials requesting that Palestinian athletes be recognized and allowed to participate. Neither letter was acknowledged. On September 5, a group calling itself Black September killed several Israeli athletes and coaches in the process of securing nine Israeli hostages.

Negotiations lasted less than 24 hours as the hostage-takers demanded the release of hundreds of Palestinians from prisons in Europe and the Middle East. Negotiators pushed back deadlines repeatedly until 10 p.m., when West German officials realized that they could not meet the terrorists' demands. They granted the hostage-takers' request for a bus to take them to two helicopters, which would take them to an airport. There, they would board a plane. The Germans knew their only chance at a successful assault would come at the airport (Aston, pg. 80).

The ensuing gun and grenade fight, which occurred shortly after the helicopters landed at the airport, left all the hostages dead, as well as a police officer and a pilot. Five of the terrorists were killed, and three were captured.

Making a Deal

At the beginning of a hostage crisis, the hostage-takers' demands are often unreasonable. They might ask for huge sums of money or for the release of thousands of fellow terrorists from jails. Of course, the negotiator can't just give them anything they ask for, even if it would mean safety for the hostages. The policies of any nations involved, the ability to actually acquire the items being demanded and the need to consult with the situation commander and high-ranking political officials all limit what a negotiator can offer to the hostage-takers. Plus, if anyone who took hostages immediately had all of his or her demands granted, the world would face one hostage crisis after another.

However, the negotiator can "chip away" at the situation by offering minor concessions, such as food and water, promises of transportation and media coverage. In return, the hostage-takers can trade some of the hostages or some of their weapons or agree to downgrade some of their demands. By continuing this process, the negotiator can gradually weaken the hostage-takers' position.

Most countries have official policies regarding negotiating with terrorists. However, these policies shift with time, and they tend to be flexible depending on the situation. If the hostages are children or important political officials, even the most hard-line non-negotiating government might make an exception. In many cases, secret deals are made that allow the government to accept demands and save the hostages but maintain their public hard-line stance against giving in to terrorists' demands.

Israel, the United States and Russia are all nations that have a reputation for strict non-negotiation policies. However, every policy is open to exceptions. One example is the 1985 hijacking of TWA Flight 847. The Hezbollah hijackers demanded the release of more than 700 Shiites who were in Israeli prisons. After a long ordeal, all the hostages were released (except one American, who was murdered by the hijackers), and Israel released all 766 prisoners.