Spare weapons carried by the terrorists in the borrowed VW Beetle.
Spare weapons carried by the terrorists in the borrowed VW Beetle. Swiss National Museum / ASL

Intimacy of terror

There was a time before mobile phones, a time when press photographers were the eyes of an entire nation. Many of the images they captured are now forgotten. But they haven’t lost their impact – for instance, the photo of an attacker shot dead in Switzerland.

Aaron Estermann

Aaron Estermann

Aaron Estermann studied history, media studies and visual communication, and is curator for historical photography at the Swiss National Museum.

It’s not hard to recognise the location as a crime scene: on the ground, in the snow, lies a corpse. In the background, police officers stand beside their vehicles. We’re very familiar with the subject matter, from the countless crime films and detective series that flicker across our screens every day. The fact that this photo is real and thus a historical document and, what’s more, was taken in famously peaceful and orderly Switzerland is more disconcerting. As is the fact that in 1969, this photo was printed in a daily newspaper. The man lying dead on the ground is Abdel Mohsen Hassan. He was a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), an organisation founded in 1967 to fight for a democratic and socialist Palestinian state. Even today, the organisation is not averse to committing terrorist acts. One frequent target from the very beginning was Europe’s civil aviation network. This was the case on 18 February 1969, when Abdel Mohsen Hassan, two other men and a woman went to Kloten Airport in a borrowed VW Beetle. From the public parking area they opened fire on a Boeing 720B that was taxiing on to the runway, about to leave Zurich for Tel Aviv. Their objective was to stop, evacuate and blow up the Israeli El Al airliner, with the entire operation, according to their orders, to be carried out with no human casualties. With the 200 shots fired by the attackers, it’s hardly surprising that six people were injured and one killed. And there were other reasons for the plan’s failure – an armed Israeli security officer was on board the El Al jet. This agent returned fire from the cockpit, slid down the emergency escape chute on to the runway, managed to get close to the attackers and shot Abdel Mohsen Hassan. The three other attackers were disarmed by the airport fire brigade and handed over to the police officers who arrived later.
The body of the attacker Abdel Mohsen Hassan at the scene of the crime on 18 February 1969.
The body of the attacker Abdel Mohsen Hassan at the scene of the crime on 18 February 1969. Swiss National Museum / ASL

Shock for the Swiss establishment

The case was a shock for Switzerland’s officialdom, which found itself unprepared and confronted with the Middle East conflict on its own soil. The consequences were numerous legal and diplomatic difficulties, and further attacks. The press ensured that the shock waves also percolated through to the population, with masses of reports, assessments of the situation and, of course, haunting photographs. Despite all the theories on modern society becoming numb and inured to acts of violence, images of war and terror still have the potential to stop us in our tracks. This picture, for instance, has an immediate, chilling effect. This is mainly because the photographer crouched down so that he could capture the partly uncovered corpse at eye level, and half of the face is clearly visible. An image that is, on the one hand, blatantly sensationalistic also catapults us – more powerfully than other photos of this assassination attempt that were circulating – right into the intimacy of terror. Away from all the political connotations and hoopla, the photograph brings us face to face with a perpetrator who was also a victim and, not least, a person. The use of the flash, illuminating the scene after darkness has fallen, gives the photograph a surreal edge. The little heaps of snow look like a cratered landscape. They cast relatively large shadows towards the corpse, which in turn throws its own shadow backwards on to the police. Most of their faces are cut off by the edge of the picture; they remain anonymous. In the men’s surroundings it is more the bright and smooth objects such as vehicle headlights, gun holsters and leather boots which draw the eye. The reflective surfaces add to the chill that hangs in the air and is further heightened by the listless feeling of inactivity pervading the already secured crime scene.
Front page of the Nouvelle Revue de Lausanne of 20 February 1969 featuring a detail of the photograph (top left).
Front page of the Nouvelle Revue de Lausanne of 20 February 1969 featuring a detail of the photograph (top left). The lurid cover was followed inside the newspaper by a number of reports on the attack. © PLR.Les Libéraux-Radicaux Vaud
Nowadays, the immediate publication of this photograph would excite debates on media ethics. The public’s right to information would need to be weighed, among other things, against the right of the subject to human dignity and peace in death. The prevailing sensibilities of the paper’s readers would also have to be considered. It is not known whether the Nouvelle Revue de Lausanne, which, two days after the attack, printed prominently on its front page a detail of the image focusing on the corpse, gave any thought to these considerations. What we do know is that the decisive reference for questions of media ethics, the Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Journalists, was first published in 1972, three years after the Kloten attack.

The press photo agency ASL

Actualités Suisses Lausanne (ASL) was founded by Roland Schlaefli in 1954, and until its closure in 1999 was the leading press photo agency in western Switzerland. In 1973, Schlaefli also took over the archive of Agentur Presse Diffusion Lausanne (PDL), founded in 1937. The holdings of the two agencies comprise approximately six million images (negatives, prints, slides). In the broad range of subjects covered, there is a focus on federal politics, sport and western Switzerland. The agency opted not to take the step into the digital age. Since 2007, the archives of ASL and PDL have been held by the Swiss National Museum. The blog presents, in a loose chronology, images and photo sequences that particularly stood out when the collections were being recatalogued.

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