He didn’t look like a killer.
No. Not this squat, stocky man with the hook nose, the nervous smile, and the brown eyes that darted across the prison meeting room, sizing up the metal chairs, the wooden table, the prison guards, and, finally, me.
But killer he was. And, as I would soon discover, Hassan Salameh was proud of the deaths he had caused.
I had traveled all morning to this maximum-security detention center in the Negev desert of southern Israel, leaving my Jerusalem hotel at dawn in a cramped Toyota with a driver, a translator, and a photographer. It was Sunday, the first day of the workweek in Israel, and we wanted to embark before the morning traffic clogged the city’s roads and highways.
As the sun peeked over the Mount of Olives, we drove along the stone walls of Jerusalem’s Old City and rolled by a row of palm trees by the Damascus Gate. We crossed Jaffa Road, then cut through the western hills and passed the patches of sleek cedars and the craggy limestone outcroppings that take on a soft, rose-colored glow in the early morning sun. After several miles, the land sloped downward to a grassy plain that stretched like a lush, green blanket all the way to the Mediterranean Sea. For centuries, these flatlands were considered a convenient, all-too-inviting pathway for invading armies who saw Jerusalem as a prize to capture. On this day, the only invaders were a line of tired-looking trucks carting crates of vegetables from Israeli farms and commuters rushing to their city jobs.
“So you want to talk to Salameh?” the Israeli prison officer asked when he called my Jerusalem hotel a day earlier.
“Yes,” I said.
“We’re talking about a high-profile terrorist with a lot of blood on his hands,” the officer said.
“I know,” I answered. “Several of his victims were Americans. That’s why I want to speak to him.”
The officer paused.
“But I don’t know if he’ll talk to you.”
* * *
My journey to the prison in the desert did not start in Jerusalem or even with that brief phone call. In ways I never could have expected at the time, it began several years earlier and thousands of miles away—on a Hudson River pier in Jersey City, New Jersey.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, I stepped from that pier to the deck of a tugboat and crossed the Hudson to reach the sixteen-acre landscape of national pain that came to be known as “Ground Zero.” Standing on the deck with me that morning was a team of Jersey City firefighters who volunteered to rescue survivors from the rubble and several Roman Catholic priests who pledged to pray over the dead—all of us heading into a landscape and, indeed, a nation that had become suddenly surreal.
The seemingly impregnable twin towers of the World Trade Center, which had gleamed like a glass and steel tuning fork above New York City and the surrounding suburbs for three decades, had collapsed an hour earlier in a massive cloud of gray-brown dust. As the tug cut through the choppy Hudson and US Air Force fighter jets ripped across the cloudless sky, no one talked. Or, if they spoke, the tone was hushed, almost a whisper. Drawing nearer to the Manhattan shoreline, we clustered on one side of the tug, gazing at the billowing smoke. As a journalist, I had covered my share of disturbing stories—stories that did not seem to have a logical beginning, middle, and ending. But the scene I looked at from the side of the tugboat was deeply unsettling. Two giant skyscrapers. Gone. I assumed thousands had died. And with the news already choked with reports of a terrorist attack, I wondered where this story would end—if it would end at all.
I stepped onto the Manhattan side of the river with a pragmatic mission. I was a journalist in search of context, with a deadline rapidly approaching to file a column for my newspaper, The (Bergen) Record. In those early moments, I could think only of this day—what had to be written and when I had to finish. But as I walked quickly down sidewalks and streets covered with white ash and made my way to the pile of smoking rubble that rose more than seven stories above me, I found myself wrestling with a question that seemed to defy easy answers or deadlines: What should I make of all this?
As the months and years wore on and I followed the discordant ripples of this story to victims’ funerals; to hearings with the 9/11 Commission in Washington, DC; to detention centers at the US Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; and to Iraq as my newspaper’s correspondent at the side of National Guard soldiers from New Jersey who had left their families and jobs behind for a war few understood, I continually returned to that question and its ever-elusive answers.
As expected, the 9/11 attacks left America with deep and painful wounds. The robust economy of the 1990s soon sputtered. Now otherwise confident and capable politicians seemed baffled about how to handle basic concepts of personal liberty, civil rights, and even methods of waging war in a world transformed by international terrorism. But for all the wide-ranging political, economic, military, and constitutional questions in the aftermath of 9/11, I found that some of the most painful were being voiced by ordinary people who lost sons and daughters that day, mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, friends. Why did their loved ones die? What should they make of all this?
For them, terrorism was personal. An emotional hole had suddenly been ripped into their lives, impossible to understand yet impossible to forget. As one father told me as he reflected on the daughter he lost: “It will always be eleven o’clock in the morning. That’s when I knew she was gone.”
Some relatives of victims sank into the understandable quicksand of bitterness. Some tried to pour their heated cauldrons of anger into charitable projects. Some enlisted in the military. Some showed up at “Ground Zero” and pleaded with rescue teams for a chance to help dig through the rubble. A few became political activists, testifying before the 9/11 Commission or volunteering to steer public policy debates about new safety rules for skyscrapers or how America could revamp its intelligence agencies to protect itself from future terrorist attacks. Most retired silently into private emotional caves, nurturing their wounded lives and trying to make sense of the fact that someone they loved had been randomly killed in the name of a political and theological agenda.
In some ways, I found that the most devastating legacy of 9/11 was the damage those attacks did to ordinary people who were left to wonder why their loved ones died—innocents murdered, with the suicide-killers claiming their bloody act gave them a ticket to a heavenly paradise with lush gardens and a long line of beautiful virgins to tend to their desires. No answers or explanations really made sense. Not one. And, after chronicling the personal stories of victims from the 9/11 attacks for several years, I kept returning to the same question that haunted me that first day at “Ground Zero”: What should I make of all this?
On many weekends, I began to take long walks through the town I call home, Teaneck, New Jersey. Invariably, I found myself stopping at the local library, sometimes finding a half hour of peace by browsing the shelves of history books or novels. As I left the library to head home, I usually walked along the edge of a parking lot and past the municipal offices that keep track of taxes, traffic tickets and building permits. And there, in the shade of a katsura tree, I often stopped by a statue of a young woman bending to smell a rosebush.
The statue is called An Unfinished Life.
It commemorates a woman who had been killed in a terrorist attack a few years earlier.
I had seen this statue before. Indeed, I had stopped to study it occasionally over the years and to read the plaque on its stone base. But after the 9/11 attacks, I found myself pausing more often to reflect on the woman smelling the roses and what her unfinished life meant.
Her name was Sara, and five years before the 9/11 attacks, she had been killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber in Jerusalem who embraced the same brand of radicalized Islamist martyrdom theology as the al-Qaeda operatives who killed themselves and thousands of others by flying hijacked commercial jetliners into the World Trade Center. As a newspaper columnist, I wrote about her death soon after it occurred, focusing primarily on the irony that she had written sympathetic essays in college about Islam and the plight of displaced Palestinians, yet had died less than a year after her college graduation at the hands of a Palestinian who believed he would be granted his special martyr’s place in heaven by killing himself and innocent people.
But how had America responded to Sara’s death? How had the world? More importantly, could Sara’s story, which took place before the 9/11 attacks, teach us lessons about the so-called “War on Terrorism” that erupted with the 9/11 attacks and seems to slog forward with no end in sight into the twenty-first century?
Like most journalists at the time, I moved on to other stories and other subjects not long after Sara was killed. For the most part, Sara’s story disappeared from the media, eclipsed by other terrorist attacks of the 1990s and the passage of time that can make the news media I love and admire so much seem so callous and shallow, lacking in context and memory.
As America continued to cope years later with the fallout from its worst terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, I decided to look back. What I discovered was a piece of history that had been largely overlooked in the years after the 9/11 attacks and as America embarked on its “War on Terrorism.” In some way, this piece of history offered a lesson—a prescription, perhaps—of what was to come after 9/11. It also offered a warning of what to avoid.
During the late 1990s, more than a dozen Americans died in terrorist attacks in the Middle East along with hundreds of Israelis and Palestinians, often at the hands of suicide bombers who blew themselves up along with their victims as an act of Islamic spiritual fulfillment and political defiance. But the bombers who died usually did not act alone. What about those who planned or financed the attacks and built the bombs that killed so many people? Were any of them held accountable?
And what of the families of those American victims? What happened to them?
I decided to start with one attack—the bombing of a commuter bus on Jerusalem’s Jaffa Road on February 25, 1996.
Sara died in that bombing.
But, as I was to discover, her legacy and life were hardly unfinished.
* * *
As we left Jerusalem and drove to the prison in the Negev, I thought of Sara and her unfinished life—and untimely death. What should I make of it—now?
After an hour’s drive, we left the cooler hill-country temperatures behind and rolled into the outskirts of Beersheba, the ancient stop for caravans from Egypt. We could feel the heat now. The air seemed dry and dusty. The sun had already climbed high into the azure sky. Before us, the rocky Negev and its lumpy, treeless landscape stretched into a hazy, undefined horizon.
We passed several concrete box homes along the roadway with satellite TV dishes on their roofs, and rolled over a gentle hill. Beyond a palm grove, a Bedouin herder guided four camels toward a watering hole. After another hill, we saw Eshel Prison rising from the sand and rocks. We parked and walked to the front gate.
Minutes later, after passing through a metal detector, I was ushered into a small meeting room with a wooden table and several folding chairs. Lt. Colonel Ian H. Domnitz of the Israeli Prison Service smiled and shook my hand.
“Hassan Salameh will be here in a minute,” he said. “Then you’ll have a chance to introduce yourself. We don’t know if he’ll talk to you. He has no idea you are coming.”
Unlike their American counterparts, Israeli prisons have a unique system for allowing journalists to speak to inmates. In America, journalists are generally required to submit a letter to prison officials, explaining why they want to interview an inmate. If prison officials approve, the letter is then passed to the inmate—or perhaps to the inmate’s lawyer—who then makes a final decision. In Israel, if prison officials approve a visit by a journalist, the inmate is simply told that he has a “visitor.”
The inmate is brought to a room, and the journalist has a minute or two to explain the purpose of the visit. At that point the inmate has a choice: To talk or to tell the journalist to get lost.
With forty-six life sentences to serve for a series of bombings he orchestrated during the mid-1990s, Hassan Salameh was arguably one of Israel’s most notorious terrorists. He not only recruited young men to be suicide bombers; he built the bombs and selected the targets. But I wanted to talk to Salameh about just one incident, the bombing of a Jaffa Road commuter bus in Jerusalem a decade earlier.
I heard a steel door slam, then the shuffle of feet and the chunky clang of leg irons growing louder in the hallway. The door to the meeting room opened, and Hassan Salameh paused for a second or two and looked around the room. Then, he stepped forward. The guards removed his handcuffs and leg irons.
Thinking about this moment during the car ride from Jerusalem, I figured I would be able to ask at least one question before Salameh decided to speak or return to his cell. And so, I thought of the young woman from New Jersey—the woman depicted as smelling roses in the statue near the library of her hometown. An Unfinished Life.
I opened my notebook and turned on my recorder.
I looked into Salameh’s eyes.
“Do you know the name Sara Duker?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said, quickly and unflinchingly.
“Why did you kill her?” I asked
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