Déjà vu All Over Again: Massacres and the Olympics

Guest Blog: The McDonald’s attack, like the Colorado massacre, had nothing to do with the Olympics — but what a coincidence

It didn’t really hit me when the news broke about the Colorado shootings. It was only when organizers of the London Olympics — despite denying any link with the murder of much of the Israeli team at the Munich games 40 years ago — held a quiet memorial marking that event that I remembered something I’d suppressed a long time ago.

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That was the equally tragic shooting spree here in southern California that preceded the 1984 Olympics in L.A. The Aurora massacre is dominating America’s news leading into the opening of the London games the way the shooting at a McDonald’s in San Diego did then, and it occurred within a day of the anniversary of the so-called “McMassacre” on July 18th, 1984.

What is this curious commingling of mass murder and Olympics about? Nothing really. After all, the Munich massacre was directly connected to the Olympics — the radical Palestinians deliberately picked it for their first attempt at anti-Israeli terrorism outside the Middle East. It worked and led to decades of similar assaults. Remember the Achille Lauro affair, the Lockerbie bombing of 1988 and the attack on the destroyer Cole? Of course, it was easy to dismiss terrorism as something that happened elsewhere — a wildly inaccurate supposition, as we discovered a year later on 9/11/2001.

The McDonald’s attack, like the Colorado massacre, had nothing to do with the Olympics — but what a coincidence, I shuddered, my mind wandering back to that horrible afternoon nearly three decades ago.

It was a slow news day. Commentators made light of the fact that 1984 was the year Big Brother would take over, but we weren’t yet worried about TVs that could watch us as we watched them, GPS locators or facial recognition software, not to mention an Internet that monitored what we thought, did, sought and bought. Or that “Big Brother” would become a hit summer show.

The real excitement was the preparation for the Games. Angelenos buzzed about what was expected to be the first “carmageddon” as the world descended on L.A. Locals made other plans for the fortnight, leaving the streets eerily empty, the freeways running at speeds not seen since the halcyon days of the GM exhibit at the New York World’s Fair, a futuristic fantasy in which we traveled through metropolis like L.A. on high-speed autobahns.

In my case it was particularly pacific — as a onetime sportswriter, Newsweek had sent me to L.A. as part of its Olympic coverage. It was assumed that after the Olympics, I would stay as the new L.A. correspondent. So, as I was busy studying up on future gold medalist Mary Lou Retton and the gymnastics team, I was keeping an eye on domestic developments. Which is why I got the call that sunny afternoon about a former Vietnam vet (it was reported) who had holed up in a McDonald’s on a shooting rampage that would claim 21 lives over the next two hours.

Even though news services alerted us almost instantly of the start of the slaughter, I knew there was no way I could make it in time to view what I naively thought it would be the “action.” Still, I gamely hopped in the second-hand black MGB convertible I’d bought when I arrived in L.A. and took off. (Hey, didn’t everyone here drive imported convertibles?) Of course, MGs weren’t known for reliability, so I typically took planes to out-of-town assignments. No time for that! My little sports car didn’t let me down, making San Diego in record time. By the time I hit San Ysidro, the murderer had been taken out by a police sniper atop a nearby Post Office building.

Later, this would prove controversial when it was pointed out that the head of San Diego SWAT, who later became the law-and-order mayor, was at an party and didn’t let SWAT move until he could take charge. Or credit. That delay cost untold lives as the killer calmly moved around the McDonald’s mowing down more people before being killed himself.

But at the moment the police were heroes and the tragedy was in front of us. Flashing my media pass, I stepped through the crowd and over the yellow tape surrounding the restaurant. For someone who had never seen a gunshot victim, it was quite a sight: bodies scattered inside the restaurant and out, many of them children. I recoiled as I stepped over a seven-year-old with a hole in his chest lying inside white police-chalk outline, blood still coagulating. As in Aurora, the maniac had taken a multi-round military weapon designed for fighting wars, a sporting shotgun and a pistol. The worst of the damage had been done (again, like in Colorado) with the military gun, a rapid-fire 9-millimeter Uzi.

It was the largest mass murder in American history, topping even Charles Whitman’s spree from the University of Texas tower. (After Virginia Tech, it’s now America’s third-largest, dwarfing Aurora in scope, if not horror.) For my part, it became my mini-Vietnam, the image I could never shake.

That day I found myself competing for the story with 15 San Diego Union reporters and 17 from the L.A. Times. Nonetheless, New York expected me to round up more exclusives than these hordes, a near impossibility. It was then I learned the first rule of reporting: You don’t have to be better than the other guy. You just have to outlast him.

So, alone but for a Chicago Tribune reporter with the same problem, I wandered the dusty streets of the moonlit barrio while the local TV trucks and reporters went home. After midnight, unable to sleep, residents began to pour out of their houses to talk, gossip and play soccer in the streets. That’s where I found my stories — at three in the morning from the mouths of babes who’d watched friends gunned down, from doughy grandmothers who told of daughters killed saving children, of hero wounded fathers.

In the end, the sleepless nights wrapping that story merged into the surreal pomp of the Olympic opening at the Coliseum, all mashing up in my head until I found myself with my own thousand-yard stare, dreaming contorted images of young gymnasts’ faces fused to bodies in a parking lot in San Diego, murder victims on balance beams in Pauley Pavilion.

I took a couple weeks off to mend. Eventually the dreams stopped — until this week, when I flashed back to bodies on TV morphing into opening ceremonies. And wondered: What it was about Olympics and murder? Coincidence? Or maybe not. Does something in the zeitgeist of modern media inspire twisted brains to seek out acclaim for their fantasies? Hopefully, I’ll sleep well tonight.