Remembering and Clarifying the Murder of Leon Klinghoffer
Former New York Times and Wall Street Journal reporter Julie Salamon is the author of An Innocent Bystander: The Killing of Leon Klinghoffer.
Klinghoffer, a 69-year-old American Jew who was disabled and in a wheelchair, was shot twice by Magid al Molqi, one of four Palestinian terrorists who hijacked the Achille Lauro, the cruise ship that Klinghoffer was traveling on with his wife in 1985. His body was then thrown overboard.
In her riveting book, Salamon gives the perspective of many of the key players, including one of the terrorists, and the wife of Alex Odeh, a Palestinian American whose was killed in his California office — possibly as a form of retribution for Klinghoffer’s murder. In a phone interview, she spoke about some of the complexities of her book.
Q: What was the most surprising thing you learned in your research?
A: The story we always knew was very simple. Four terrorists boarded the ship, killed Leon Klinghoffer, threw his body overboard, and end of story. The whole geopolitical complications of it were amazing. The negotiations between Italy and all of the players was fascinating. The surprising thing was that there was this idea that Leon Klinghoffer was killed because he was Jewish. He was killed because he was an American. … But it was interesting how we are told things, but when we go deep into the facts, things were different.
Q: You write that Bibi Netanyahu and others politicized the murder, and said Klinghoffer was killed because he was a Jew, and you write there was no evidence to support that. Is it possible that the terrorist who killed him asked him if he was a Jew, and he said yes?
A: I would say it would have been almost impossible since Molqi, the guy who killed him, didn’t speak English — and Leon Klinghoffer didn’t speak Arabic, and could barely talk. It’s pretty unlikely.
Q: In terms of getting the guns on the ship, security didn’t check any bags?
A: They didn’t check any bags at all. There was no security at all. Zero.
Q: What’s one detail you wanted to have that you didn’t get?
A: I would have been interested in talking to Molqi. He vanished. I felt very lucky to even be able to speak to one of the hijackers, Bassam al-Askar. He [Molqi] ultimately is the murkiest. Why did he kill Klinghoffer? I would want to know why he killed him, and did he have any regrets for it.
Q: As you say, you did interview one of the terrorists. What do you say to those who argue that journalists shouldn’t do this because it gives terrorists a platform?
A: I don’t subscribe to that. Interviewing is one thing. Now we live in a more media savvy and horrific era of terrorism since 9/11. There are people cutting people’s heads off in front of TV cameras. Obviously, that is something I think shouldn’t be shown. But to talk to someone and see what are their motives? I think it’s a useful conversation. When Hitler was rising to power, journalists were talking to Hitler and he was saying exactly what he was gonna do. Nobody paid attention. To say you don’t talk to a terrorist or the enemy or however you want to describe them seems close-minded to me. I know NBC came under attack for interviewing Abu-al Abbas, but I thought having that interview was very instructive.
Q: When you interviewed the terrorist, why did he want to be interviewed?
A: He’s a very smart guy. I think he genuinely believes in his cause. He genuinely has this yearning fostered in him from the time he was a baby to return to the homeland. I said to him, “Why are you willing to be interviewed?” He said, “I have nothing to hide.” He did not support the killing of Leon Klinghoffer. He was ashamed of it. This was not what he had signed up for, to kill an older man in a wheelchair who was disabled.
Q: You think he was sincere?
A: I do. He was not with the terrorist who killed Klinghoffer, and the captain’s book corroborates that. You don’t have to be a genius to know this wasn’t gonna look good for their cause.
Q: Alex Odeh’s killers were never brought to justice, though it was believed that members of the Jewish Defense League may have been responsible. Do you think there was a purposeful lack of effort to find his killers?
A: Obviously they never found who the killers were. They were zeroing in on this guy Manning who escaped to Israel and ended up getting jailed there for something else. At that point, there was not much effort to get him extradited. The feeling was it was someone else’s problem. There was a lot of hot potato going on.
Q: A news piece on Odeh on TV was edited and made him look harsher [in his anti-Israel position] than he was. Do you think if his killer would have seen a softer version, it would have made a difference?
A: From the point of view of Alex Odeh’s survivors, it’s one of those things that would haunt you, you know, would it have made a difference? It made him seem more hawkish. I think it’s a possibility for sure. Any time you strip out the context … to be fair to the news station, everyone has done it. In those days, people were much less worried about that kind of thing. I’m sure if you ask whoever edited that piece, do you wish they hadn’t done that, I’m sure they’d say yeah.
Q: You describe in great detail how President Reagan ordered US pilots to follow and force down the plane with the terrorists on it. Do you think former President Jimmy Carter would have done the same thing?
A: The interesting thing about Reagan sending the planes up is it was probably an ill-conceived, and possibly an illegal, idea that worked. In the end, you could say justice was served because the hijackers underwent a court proceeding, not in the United States but in Italy, which you could argue was the correct jurisdiction. The real question is would Carter have ordered the various countries not to let the Achille Lauro land. The irony is, had Syria not been told by the US, “don’t let the boat land there,” they would have landed there. The hijackers would have gotten away, but nobody would have been killed. These are hypotheticals, but it’s interesting how politicians make decision that follow their normal tendencies. Reagan’s advisers took a militaristic stance that Carter might not have taken.
Q: What do you hope people take away from your book?
A: It’s important for people to know [that] terrorism didn’t start with 9/11, and certainly the situation in Israel didn’t start yesterday. It’s amazing how many people know so little about the history. I think just to understand where we are today with all of these conflicts, just to understand it’s part of a long game is one thing. …
I’m not so arrogant and I don’t have such a big ego to think that my book is going to change the minds of people whose minds are fixed on this issue, but I think it’s sad there’s almost no discussion of Israelis and Palestinians talking to each other. I don’t lay the blame at the feet of Israelis or Palestinians only. It’s a two-way street. But certainly the rise of Hamas has not helped. Certainly the rise of fundamentalists in Israel has not helped. If this book would just move the needle a little bit, that would be amazing. But who knows?