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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. My guest today will be familiar to our longtime viewers. A perceptive critic, prolific author and riveting storyteller. Julie Salamon is here. Her newest book is “An Innocent Bystander: The killing of Leon Klinghoffer.” Daughter of Czech immigrants who were Holocaust survivors, Salamon was raised in Ohio, a rural village of 800 people where her father was a town doctor. A veteran of the New York Times, and Wall Street Journal, she has covered business, philanthropy, and the arts. “’An Innocent Bystander’ recounts the harrowing story of a hijacked voyage at sea, the terrorists and the family of the murder victim, an elderly American thrown overboard” The New York Daily News noted, “It explains how competing governments, complicated treaties and outright lies kept the four attackers, terrorists from ever facing American justice.” And NPR added, “Klinghoffer’s death became a symbol for many of the costs and fears of terrorism.” Indeed, Salamon chronicles that episode and its successive chain reaction to illuminate the present Israeli Palestinian conflict and connected moral and geopolitical questions.” A pleasure to see you, Julie.
SALAMON: Great to see you.
HEFFNER: Thank you for being here.
SALAMON: Thank you for having me.
HEFFNER: This story is news to many Millennials, my cohort and certainly the subsequent cohort of the Post Millennials or Generation Z. But it was really the opening salvo if you will, of terrorism.
SALAMON: You have to remember the 1980s was an age of terrorism. There was actually a great; it was a doctoral thesis that became a book called “The First War on Terrorism,” by David Wells. And he actually looked at the fact that there were several acts of terrorism in the 80s of which the killing of Leon Klinghoffer, the man thrown overboard the Achille Lauro was one. You know you don’t remember because you weren’t born yet that in the seventies and eighties, there were numerous hijackings of airplanes. It was pre screenings. And so there was an enormous fear about travel abroad throughout the world that reverberated, and 9/11 was really the culmination, really of many, many years of terrorist acts going on around the world. But Americans still felt relatively immune from it. And why I think the Klinghoffer killing became so riveting to so many people here was because this was an elderly man in a wheelchair on sort of a last hurrah vacation with his wife and friends. And these four young Palestinians, the oldest one was 23, the youngest was 17, ended up hijacking this boat actually by accident almost. They had a different mission in mind and it became an international cause celeb because the image of an old man being killed by somebody and then his body and his wheelchair thrown overboard was rare in those days, at least rare in the western world.
And at the time, the big geopolitical question was, Ronald Reagan was president, The Russians were communist, there was not Russia, it was the USSR and Israel. So everything became a triangulation. Whatever happened in the Middle East would reverberate in Russia. And what happened with the hijacking of the Achille Lauro and the killing of an American citizen civilian suddenly catapulted the Israeli Palestinian conflict into the consciousness of everyday Americans, not just Jewish Americans, not just Palestinian Americans, in a way that I think it hadn’t reverberated before.
HEFFNER: What do you mean by accidental? It was an accidental hijack for our viewers.
SALAMON: Right. So at the time, the Palestinians then as now were trying to achieve statehood, the story that the reality and the popular narrative in the United States was that Israel was given to the Jews as the homeland, as the state in 1948 and as almost compensation for the Holocaust, that view is now disputed by the state of Israel. They say, no, it wasn’t really only the Holocaust. There were many factors, which is true, but certainly the Holocaust was the tipping point. But there was also an incredible, there was an entire people living there. Arab people, they weren’t called Palestinians there. The land was called Palestine, but the Arab people living there, and they felt a competing claim on this land. And that war was fought in 1948. It was the war of Independence for Israel. It was the Nakba, the catastrophe for the Palestinians. And that war continues in many ways up until today. Now it’s the Israel owns the land, but the political and PR war is still raging and it’s now raging in our own country.
HEFFNER: But accidental…
SALAMON: So the accidental part was, so the PLO was the guiding leadership of the Palestinians at the time, ultimately now Fatah. And so there was the diplomatic side going on with Yasser Arafat and then Arafat had other groups under the umbrella, one of which was the Palestinian Liberation Front, which was headed by a man called Abu al-Abbas. That was his warrior name. And Abbas was sort of the military arm. So Arafat would be here saying, I’m a man of peace. I’m trying to negotiate peace. But he had his military people just as every nation does, doing their military actions and Abbas, the head of this was obsessed with infiltrating Israel. This was way before the intifadas and Israel seemed impregnable. And so his plan, such as it was, was to have these four young guys dress up as tourists. They went shopping, they got their tourist clothes, they were given passports from other countries and they were supposed to take the cruise and the cruise was going from Italy to Egypt and then ultimately landing in Ashdod, a port in Israel. And their plan was to get off the boat with their AK 47s and shoot up Israelis. You have to remember there was no security. You could board a ship with your suitcase with your AK 47 in your bags, which is what they did. But in the course of the ship, these were four young guys who’d been raised in refugee camps and they didn’t realize that several times a day people come into your cabin to clean it and they thought they were being spied on. They didn’t speak English, they didn’t speak Italian. It was an Italian ship and at one point they panicked and they decided they’re going to hijack the ship. There were four of them and it was a doomed enterprise from the beginning. They hijacked the ship and they had all the passengers gathered together. They started to panic because they tried to get the boat to land in different ports. The U.S. was radioing all the ports in the mid east don’t let them land. We don’t want to let the hijackers have a safe haven and get away.
And after they were denied entry in Syria, they, the commander of the four, the 23 year old says, okay, we’re going to start killing passengers. The other three thought this was just a threat. This was not part of the plan. And he, on his own separately isolated Leon Klinghoffer who was in a wheelchair, to come to a distant deck and out of sight of everybody one-on-one killed him. And so when I say accidental, they weren’t supposed to hijack the ship. They had another mission that was not a noble mission. They were going to get off, shoot up the port. But to them that was a justified military incursion on an enemy state.
HEFFNER: Right. Well, when I said earlier opening salvo, yes, I meant it in terms of Americans as the target, but I also mentioned in terms of the militantism, the radicalism, and you know, if that had been a contemporary attack with the militia and fire power that they possessed, there is no doubt according to that fundamentalist, terroristic goal that there would have been much more bloodshed and harm.
SALAMON: The PLO at that time. I mean Arafat was a Muslim, but the PLO at that time was a secular organization and in fact it was the failure of the PLO but also the failure of America and the Israelis to come to some kind of peaceful discussion that ultimately led to the rise of Hamas in the 90s and Hamas is a fundamentalist organization and a much more violent organization. I mean, in a way, when you look back at the hijacking of the Achille Lauro, it seems benign by comparison to later terrorism that grew out of it. But I think when you look at the geopolitical considerations that went in to how to deal with this situation it led to this later brand of…
HEFFNER: It exacerbated …
SALAMON: It exacerbated, because it didn’t go to the root causes. And the problem is, the root cause is you’ve got a piece of property that two warring peoples want. And there’s never been a solution to how to make that happen. And throughout this terrible now 70-year history, that every time it gets close, something happens. So the biggest chance, in my opinion, for peace was in the 90s when Rabin who was the prime minister of Israel, who was not a peacenik, he was a warrior. But he realized that for Israel’s survival, they had to come to some kind of peaceful solution with the Palestinians. And what happened to him, he was assassinated by a right wing Jew. And that part of what I tried to deal with, as the backdrop to this story is this endless cycle of violence, that every time there’s a hope for peace, then the Palestinians would do something and then the Israelis would kick back with not just force but one and a half times force. And what was fascinating to me in the Reagan Archive, there are thousands of pages of documents about the Achille Lauro of how at that time, the U.S. government was trying to recognize competing interests, deal with them without betraying the ally, which is Israel but recognize that if you don’t deal with this competing demand in a realistic way, then how are you ever going to end up with peace? And I would say now this is 35 years ago, we haven’t succeeded at all. We’re further away from some kind of humane resolution and I think we’ve ever been.
HEFFNER: You’re in effect arguing that there at least the American response exacerbated a problematic policy in not considering holistically the geopolitical challenge and solution.
SALAMON: Nobody’s with clean hands here. And I think what was really fascinating about this story is you can see how it’s this three dimensional chessboard going on …
SALAMON: And every time you make a move, you know, it’s always having an effect someplace else. So the big two players at that time was the Soviet Union and America. And Ronald Reagan’s main obsession at that time was the Soviet Union. You know, we talk about terrorism now as something that we talk about. In those days it was a new phenomenon and you had people in the State Department and in the Pentagon who were still reeling from Vietnam, which wasn’t that long before. And so every decision they were trying to make had Vietnam reverberating in the back…
HEFFNER: Non interventionist approach…
SALAMON: Right. And on the other hand, you have Israel trying to, you know, do what it should do as a country. It’s trying to protect its interest.
And what was interesting to me, the person who emerged on the stage during this was Benjamin Netanyahu, who was a young up and coming politician at the time. He was the UN ambassador from Israel and the Israelis were providing intelligence to the U.S. about what was going on. You have to remember there were no cell phones. There was, you know, this, this ship actually disappeared for two days. I mean, that couldn’t happen today I don’t think. And so you know, it was a pre satellite world, everything was quite different. It was an almost no cable news world. CNN was five years old. So when you look at the way the nations were dealing with it’s not really to assess blame. It’s easy 35 years later to say you should have done this. But I think Reagan was under a lot of competing pressures, his Secretary of State wanted a much more aggressive stance.
His Secretary of Defense wanted a less aggressive stance because who do they want to alienate less? Their Arab allies, the Israelis. And then the Europeans are playing their own game because they’re also trying to appease the PLO, the Palestinians, because they’re having their airports blown up all the time and they have a natural sympathy for it. So it’s, I wish I could say, oh, I found a great solution to this problem then. But I do think that nobody was really trying to find, everybody wanted to say this was something bigger than a crime and in a way, as opposed to it’s terrorism versus crime and the Italian courts, which ultimately tried the terrorist, said this wasn’t an act of terrorism. This was a group of people with a political cause. So in a way, the Italian courts, even though they condemned the murder and they convicted the terrorists of kidnapping and of murder, they did not convict them of being terrorists.
HEFFNER: Even though that’s the definition we’d ascribe to terrorism today, I mean if you think of the objectives of Hamas or al-Qaida, they do have political goals.
SALAMON: Exactly. So it, it depends which side of the,
HEFFNER: I was going to ask you about the Italians.
SALAMON: Well the Italians, but if you read, if you go on Facebook and read Arabic and read what the Hamas is saying about the U.S. and Israel they say we’re the terrorists.
HEFFNER: But that’s what I’m going to ask you.
SALAMON: So the, the impunity part of this story and what drew me to it was there is an aspect of it that is like an international thriller. I was a film critic for many years and there is this incredible story of the machinations of what to do with the terrorists, what to do with the hijackers. These guys hijack the ship. Eventually they get off the ship in Egypt because they tell a lie that nobody was killed.
The captain of the ship, who knew Klinghoffer had been killed, lied because he wanted to get them off his ship. Once they were in Egypt, all anybody wanted to do was get rid of them, not to kill them, but to get them out of their territory because, they were a problem. The only people wanted them was the U.S. We wanted to try them here. And one of the moving parts of the story was the story of Lisa and Ilsa Klinghoffer, the daughters, who really just wanted justice to be done and they wanted to see a trial. They wanted to see a conviction. But at one, but initially the hijackers were in Egypt. Mubarak openly lies to Reagan and said, Oh, they’re not here. The Israelis have Mubarak’s office bugged, so they knew that it was a lie because they heard them saying, get them out of here.
They take off in a civilian airplane and the Americans, Reagan makes a decision that is almost entirely, probably an illegal decision, to say that the, and that was where Oliver North comes into the story, that they should intercept this plane. They send these F 14s up from an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean to intercept the airplane carrying the hijackers and miraculously it works. Instead of having to shoot down a civilian plane, which could have really set off a firestorm in Europe and the Middle East, they force the plane to land in Italy and the Italian say, hey; it’s an Italian ship. We’re taking custody. We’re going to try this case here. And for the U.S. ultimately, even though they said they wanted to bring the hijackers here on, wanted to have the trials here, I think it was the best-case scenario. They got the hijackers tried, it was in Italy, it was their problem. But even that, even the rule of law, even the idea that there was a rule of law and arguments about jurisdiction was actually so refreshing to read compared to how things are now where it’s just people shouting at each other and, and nobody really understanding that what holds these fragile civilizations together is the belief in some kind of law, some kind of governance.
HEFFNER: So how did the family respond to the attempt of justice in Italy?
SALAMON: I think they were, I think they were, I’ve stayed in touch. Well, part of what the book is about is not just following the Klinghoffer family, but the family of Abu al-Abbas.
SALAMON: Because honestly I feel that Abu al-Abbas was misguided, did the wrong thing, but I think he, he truly believed in what he was doing, and his family has suffered the fallout of that. And I think that there, there’s very little… There is right and wrong. You shouldn’t kill civilians on, on ships. But if you start to look at the political aims and what are the competing interests of all the players, it’s very complicated. For the daughters it was more simple. Their father had been murdered, they wanted justice to be done and I think they wanted to be able to see it in an American court of law.
And so for them, the fact that it was happening in Italy was … it was probably the right thing to do. Jurisdictionally it made sense. It was an Italian ship. The hijackers were brought down on an Italian Arab airbase. But I think that for the daughters, there was this sense of frustration that they didn’t get to get the commander Abu al-Abbas, boss who was the boss of the four guys. I mean they understood that these four young guys were pawns in a much larger game. And so I think they have had up until this day, sort of this nagging feeling of justice not being done. And yet I think the larger question for all victims of terrorism or of any crime is, can justice be done? It’s a very slippery concept.
HEFFNER: Do you think that the, the absence of adequate justice in their minds, at all increased the, we said exacerbated but increase the tension and the appetite for demagoguery in Israel and in the United States?
SALAMON: I think in the United States for sure. In Israel, this was a small, this was just another act of terrorism. In Israel this was just part of a long line of incident and retaliations and reprisals that only became important here because of that. But yes, in the United States it was used to ratchet up antagonism, and I will say the Israelis saw a political advantage in this because immediately after it came out that Klinghoffer had been killed. They said, oh, he was killed because he was a Jew, which he was. He was a Jew, but I don’t think he was killed because he was a Jew. He was killed because he had an American passport. The Americans and the British had been isolated from the other passengers. And they were, they were the Palestinians represented the American alliance with Israel and support of Israel and all of the, everybody who was a witness to this, there are diaries and I’ve interviewed all the people connected who are still alive.
They never talked about the Jews. When they, when the Palestinians used the word Jew, they were talking Zionist or Israeli. And yet the Israelis immediately said it was because he was Jewish. And here among Jews, that became the sustaining narrative and only added, fuel if not the kind of, if not hatred, suspicion and distrust and alienation from Palestinians. They’re murderous terrorist who singled out an old Jewish man in a wheelchair and killed him. One of them singled out an old man in a wheelchair and killed him, which is a reprehensible, horrible thing to do. But politically the two descriptions have a very different ramification. And Netanyahu went to the Shiva, which is the ceremony after somebody dies, a period of mourning at the Klinghoffer’s house unannounced. He went up to their apartment and he, he more or less gave Marilyn Klinghoffer, Leon Klinghoffer’s widow, sort of her marching orders on how to use her husband’s death to, I mean he didn’t say it this way, he said to fight terrorism, but he also meant to support the Israeli cause.
HEFFNER: The extremeness of the demagoguery is so clear from his messaging. And this is an era fraught with a continued disunion of Palestinian and Israeli people. Is there any way of understanding how we can bring back what seems like a more sedate era? I mean, I know you’re saying it’s, it wasn’t a sedate era, but I think that some of the apocalyptic rhetoric of the present is, is rather extreme.
SALAMON: Absolutely. And I think that, you know look, Netanyahu’s history is born in blood and you understand his vehemence, his brother was killed in, in the raid on Entebbe, but he then there are many ways you can react to that. I’m speaking as the daughter of Holocaust survivors. You can say, I’m just going to hate everybody for the rest of my life and take revenge or I’m going to try to understand, I’m not going to maybe forget and I may not even forgive, but I’m not going to carry this through to the next generation. I mean, Germany is an incredible case in point, right? This was no, I grew up in an era when Jews would not buy German products and now Berlin is the hot place for your generation to go and hang out and do art. You know? I mean, what a radical transformation.
It’s more complicated in Israel because it’s not just the Israelis versus the Palestinians ever. It’s always the Israelis versus the Arab world. It’s the Palestinians versus the U.S. It’s always a huge, complicated mix of players. But yes, if you had a leader in Israel who didn’t almost seem to thrive on combat and on this combative language, and I think the tragedy to me of what’s happening in Israel and Palestine has been the rise of the most extreme, the fundamentalist, religious fundamentalism on both sides. The rise of the extreme right in Israel. And I don’t know if Hamas is the extreme left, but of a militant attitude. And we certainly now with our current administration is just feeding the flame. You know, even what happened just now with Ilhan Omar the, the squad, you know that you can’t come to Palestine to visit, you’re a member of Congress, for Bibi Netanyahu to deny entry and then allow entry. And then our president says, no, that is not, that’s not leading us on a road to peace.
HEFFNER: What is the end game for theocracy or demagoguery in this region, but specifically for an Israel that will take a leadership and ownership of a moral choice?
SALAMON: High ground?
HEFFNER: High ground, yes.
SALAMON: So I think, my hope, my fantasy is your generation is that one of the things I found in doing the research and doing, telling the stories of both sides, really of the Klinghoffer family, of the Abbas family. You see how many commonalities people have. Anybody who travels, anybody who talks to people from other sides of the table, sadly a lost art these days. But you learn that people often have many things in common that don’t rise, don’t bubble up to the surface. In Israel, very hard to have that conversation today. I think if a new leadership would come in that was thinking about these issues in a different way, not just how many ways can we lock, you know, choke people off.
How many ways can we look at who’s going to bomb us as opposed to who’s going to work with us? I’m, one of the people I interviewed for the epilogue to the book was a man who used to be the head of the Shin Bet, the internal secret service there. He was in that job when Rabin was assassinated and he said, I’m not pro-Palestinian, but I feel we have to come to a two state solution. I think we have to come to peace with the Palestinians or else Israel won’t exist anymore as a state and that would be a tragedy if this dream that was started with goodwill just became, you know, another dictatorship in the Middle East.
HEFFNER: Right. I was thinking about Kennedy’s speech, I think it was at American University and saying we breathe the same air and honestly it takes that kind of character and fortitude. We’re out of time, Julie, but hopefully, whether it’s one of our generations, whichever it is, it just takes courage maybe more than youth or vigor. It takes those things too.
SALAMON: I agree.
HEFFNER: Thank you Julie.
SALAMON: Thank you.
HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to view this program online or to access other interviews and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.