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Leon Klinghoffer And The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict In 'An Innocent Bystander'


The murder of Leon Klinghoffer was merciless and cruel. He was a 69-year-old New Yorker on a Mediterranean cruise with his wife Marilyn in October 1985 when their ship, the Achille Lauro, was hijacked by four people from the Palestinian Liberation Front. They held the passengers and crew hostage. Their demands to release 50 Palestinians in Israeli jails were not met, and they were refused permission to dock in Syria. The hijackers singled out Leon Klinghoffer. He was Jewish and in a wheelchair from a stroke. They shot him in the head and chest and threw him overboard. Leon Klinghoffer's death became a symbol for many of the costs and fears of terrorism.

Julie Salamon, a journalist formerly of The Wall Street Journal, has written a book about that moment and the human threads that followed in a way that depicts the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, "An Innocent Bystander: The Killing Of Leon Klinghoffer." Julie Salamon joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

JULIE SALAMON: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: Tell us about the author, if you please, of this operation, Abu Abbas.

SALAMON: Abu al-Abbas was the head of the Palestinian Liberation Front, which was under the umbrella of the PLO, the Palestine Liberation Organization, at the time Yasser Arafat was the head of it. And at this period of time in the '80s, Arafat was involved in a lot of peace negotiations that went on for several years. But he had different operatives, including Abu al-Abbas, who was sort of the military arm of the organization. And so he sort of was doing one thing in the front of the room, and then these other acts of terrorism were going on at the same time.

SIMON: And what made this ship, the Achille Lauro, or I suppose we should say any ship, any kind of target?

SALAMON: Well, it wasn't supposed to be a target. And one of the misconceptions about the hijacking of the Achille Lauro was that it became - a kind of mythology grew up around the hijacking. And, actually, the four young guys who got on the ship were supposed to be using it as kind of a taxi to take them to Israel. That was one of the stops on the cruise. And their idea was to get off the ship in Israel and shoot up the port. These were very young guys, age 17 to 23, and they freaked out during the course of the voyage, and they decided to hijack the ship.

And, you know, everybody made political hay out of it. Part of what I try to show in the book is how the Reagan administration, which needed a win against terrorism - you know, Reagan had come into office in 1980 denouncing Jimmy Carter for the Iran hostage situation. And then, of course, in '83, there was the horrible bombing in Beirut of the Marine barracks. And so when the Achille Lauro hijacking happened, there was just an incredible resolve on the part of the U.S. government to bring the hijackers to justice.

SIMON: And, of course, the whole need to get a win, if you please, motivated some of the worst elements in society, too, didn't it?

SALAMON: Yeah, absolutely. And I think one of the things that came out of this book was - things that resonate so much today - is that three days after Leon Klinghoffer was murdered, the Jewish Defense League, which was a kind of terror organization here in the United States, assassinated a Palestinian American peace activist in Los Angeles. That story did not get the same kind of headlines.

SIMON: The Klinghoffers were galvanized - his widow Marilyn and, in time, their two daughters. A lot of people tried to sign on to his name, didn't they?

SALAMON: They did. You know, the truth is we always - a lot of people thought Leon Klinghoffer was killed because he was a Jew. I truly don't believe that those four hijackers - I was able to interview one of them, the youngest one. I don't think they knew he was Jewish. But, you know, the Israeli government right away, as soon as he was killed, said, oh, look; it was a Jewish victim. And so I think everybody wanted to use Klinghoffer's death for their own purposes.

SIMON: What ultimately happened to Abu Abbas?

SALAMON: The four hijackers were - there was a very dramatic bringing them to justice in Italy. And Abu al-Abbas escaped. He ended up taking refuge in Iraq because Saddam Hussein at that time - this was in the late '80s, early '90s - was very welcoming to the Palestinians. And Abu al-Abbas kind of set up camp there. And he continued his business. But, you know, over the course of the '90s, Hamas started to rise. He was Muslim, but much more secular. The whole movement became much more a product of religion. And so I would say he became somewhat irrelevant.

SIMON: What do you see in this story, the loss of Leon Klinghoffer and what followed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict of today?

SALAMON: I wish I could say, oh, I see the way to correct the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I don't. I think what one comes to understand from reading this book, and I say this particularly to younger viewers who don't remember this event, is just, you know, we hear so much about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but I think a lot of people forget where it started and the endless tit for tat and the self-righteousness and the fear that is just continually perpetuated on both sides.

SIMON: Julie Salamon - her book "An Innocent Bystander: The Killing Of Leon Klinghoffer" - thank you so much for being with us.

SALAMON: Thank you very much.