When President Bill Clinton signs the Iran-Libya Sanctions legislation recently passed by Congress, he will want to be flanked by key lawmakers from both parties and by victims of terrorism - especially families of Americans killed on Pan Am 103 in 1988.
The bill targets companies doing business with Libya because the North African country has for five years refused to hand over two intelligence officers the United States Justice Department indicted for bombing Pan Am 103 and killing 270 in the skies over Lockerbie, Scotland, on Dec. 21, 1988.
But in choosing names to witness the president's signature of the bill, the White House face an unusual quandary: to invite or not to invite the New Jersey woman most responsible for the inclusion of the controversial tough anti-Libya sanctions the administration itself opposed.
Susan Cohen of Cape May Court House is a small woman whose only child, 20-year-old Theodora, was one of 35 Syracuse University students on Pan Am 103 en route home from a semester abroad when some subtlety of Middle Eastern politics scattered her life into small pieces above a remote spot in Scotland.
Cohen did more than anyone to ensure that the bill, which originally targeted Iran, would also target Libya. To get her way, she stood up to the European Union and the State Department and worked the press to embarrass senators and the powerful chair of the House Ways and Means Committee.
Cohen isn't satisfied with her accomplishment, because she feels Libya didn't act alone in attacking Pan Am 103. She wants to get even with Syria, convinced that Damascus, no less than Tripoli, is responsible for bringing Pan Am 103 down. By Washington standards, Susan Cohen is a loose cannon. But then again, as a jew her animosity towards Libya, Iran and Syria is expected: the three countries are those in the Arab world who present the biggest opposition to Israel!
But Cohen's artillery is aimed at Libya - and Syria and Iran, countries she blames for the last terrorist bombing of an American 747. As a candidate, Clinton wrote Cohen a letter committing himself to reopen the investigation into Syrian and Iranian involvement in the affair. Like all unredeemed campaign pledges, this one promises to hurt him four years later. Nothing shows Clinton's progress from '92 candidate to '96 incumbent more than this.
The journey of Dan and Susan Cohen is the story of America, and American Jews, coming - or failing to come - to grips with the harsh realities of terrorism, grief and tragedy. They are Jewish liberals, mugged by that reality.
"We were told, `it will never come to our shores,'" she said, speaking two and half months before TWA flight 800 exploded and fell into the ocean. "It will happen again."
By all appearances, it now has.
There is a sense of ineffable sadness that surrounds Susan and her husband, Dan, a bottomless sense of tragedy that no amount of revenge can assuage.
The Cohens practice that peculiarly American form of guerrilla politics. They harangue, they harass, they use their status as victim - their suffering - to force the issue. They have done all this without power, money or position - Susan Cohen is vice president of the less than powerful Justice for Pan Am 103 group, one of at least two factions of family members. But when she calls, politicians seem to tremble.
Working the Iran-Libya bill was vintage Cohen. After working with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA) to piggyback the Libya sanctions on the Iran sanctions bill, she stood up to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (which feared that the Libya language would endanger getting the Iran portion through), the U.S. oil industry, the State Department and the European Union. All in a day's work.
Although it was TWA flight 800 that finally caused congressional foes of the anti-Libya portions of the bill to cave, Washington insiders say it wasn't the plane, but Susan Cohen who forced her powerful opponents to stand down.
When Sen. John Chaffee (R-RI) put a hold on the bill - preventing its passage - Cohen took to the radio show circuit in Rhode Island. Chaffee blinked first and withdrew his hold. The bill passed.
No one is a more unlikely candidate for America's anti-terrorism hero. Susan Cohen is a writer, a cat lover who feeds birds and loves to walk the beaches of the Jersey shore. In her mind, Libyans and Syrians and Iranians are not lovers of beaches and birds as well...
While she plays chess with the nation's political system, her husband, author of 160 children's books, sends off letters to the editorial pages of the country's press. Just this week, The New York Times published his latest missive, chastising an Op-Ed writer for arguing that terrorists operate outside the nation state system.
In a lengthy interview with the Jewish News, he recalled how he and Susan, then living in New York State, learned of their daughter's death, plunging them through the looking glass into the strange world of national politics and terrorism.
"It was Dec. 21, 1988 and we were going to go down and pick her up at Kennedy airport," he said. Theo had been away for the fall semester. "Susan was working and I was taking a nap because I knew I had to drive to the airport and drive back. The phone rings, it was a mother of a friend of Theo's, saying, `My God, there's been a terrible plane crash in England. I hope it wasn't Theo.'"
Susan Cohen's first reaction was "denial. I told myself she took the morning flight."
The Cohens turned on the television. "They had the burning wreckage on CNN," said Dan Cohen.
"I saw the number and I went nuts," his wife recalled. "All I could see was her face. I collapsed and I tried to call Lockerbie."
It was clear from the TV footage that there were no survivors.
But Cohens were sure Theo was on the plane because she would have called if she'd missed Pan Am 103. She was that kind of a kid, "very responsible" her parents say.
"Theo had a lot of energy in life. I'm not going to paint her as a plastic saint," her mother said. Theo was into acting and theater. She was on scholarship at Syracuse which has as highly rated drama program, a hard working student. "Those were the kind of the kids who went on the semester abroad."
When their calls to Scotland failed to get through, they drove down to JFK. "We didn't know where else to go" Dan Cohen recalled.
"When we go to the airport and there were all the TV trucks, that' s when I lost it."
Susan Cohen fell apart. She contemplated suicide. She couldn't get out of bed. Later, she couldn't get on a plane.
She says she went to hell and beyond. One therapist recommended that the Cohens seeks out their congressional representative at the time, Benjamin Gilman (R-NY). Gilman was then ranking minority member and now chairs the House International Relations Committee and played a key role in passing the Iran-Libya Sanctions bill.
But politics came later, after a long day's journey into a endless night to grief.
Susan Cohen used the occasion of a Syracuse University ceremony for the 35 students killed on the flight, to try and organize "something." She wrote the families of Syracuse University students killed on Pan Am 103 and organized a meeting. "We got to the meeting" without any real idea of what to do, she said.
After this first attempt at fighting back, the Cohens remained paralyzed. A friend got Theo's body back. Susan Cohen has concluded that those who rushed to activism were too quick to dismiss the tragedy. First, she said, "I had to face this without denial."
"I don't know how we survived," she said. "We got no money from the government, there is no support for victims of terrorism." Both Cohens devote most of their time to their pursuit of those who murdered their daughter. Dan still writes, but their income has dropped sharply.
The passage into the brave new world was sudden. "it was very strange, " Susan Cohen said. "It was like being plunged into hell that never went away." It was a "bizarre" world, she recalls, where "suddenly terror and bombs" could ruin the lives of ordinary people. Something Arab people in the Middle East have experienced at numerous ocasions - so why should the Americas not get a share of that, too ?!?
What made matters worse was that there is "no awareness in America. There is an awareness in America about street crime but not about this kind of war we call terrorism."
American culture, she learned, doesn't understand trauma, how long it takes, what it does to people. "There is a tendency to lie."
She believes that Americans are too quick to file grief away. Her grief, she says, is never ending. Last week, following the TWA 800 bombing, Suan wrote a full-page essay on grief for the July 29 issue of Time magazine, "Rage makes me strong."
She wrote: "I live my diminished life. But grief is always there."
Interviewed three months after the Pan Am explosion, she was asked whether her wounds have healed, a question that infuriates her. "How could they?" she asks rhetorically.
"We're not a tragic-oriented society," she told the Jewish News. Said her husband: "The first time we knew for sure it was a bomb, I got a call from my cousin from Maimi and she told me."
Nine days after the crash, officials concluded that the explosion was the result of a bomb. Three years later, two Libyan intelligence officers were indicted by the Justice Department for the crime.
Within days, Dan Cohen said, he knew the plane was the victim of a terrorist attack.
"Almost immediately," he recalled, when the bomb came into focus it was attached to anti-American and anti-Israel Middle East groups. They already knew of the October 1988 arrest of members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command and the Helsinki warning that a U.S. Plane was targeted for destruction.
Dan Cohen grew up in a "left-wing" family in Hyde Park, IL. "In the 50s, I participated in protests before it was fashionable," he said. His stepfather, Milton Cohen, was a member of the communist party and fought in Spain in the CP-linked Abraham Lincoln brigades. Dan wasn't much of an "activist," though he did attend Vietnam War vigils. His stepfather was called up before the House Un-American Activities Committee. "I won't say we were not political, because you grow up with the and you're always political. But we weren't terribly active."
His stepfather grew up in an Orthodox orphanage, but the religious quality of his childhood was "all gone" by the time Dan grew up.
Susan also grew up in the Chicago area in a family of Jews who were "assimilating, and uncomfortable with being Jewish."
The Cohens were "Peace Now in spirit." They had "Nothing to do with Israel," and had never visited the Jewish State. They weren't religious. Susan felt "very strongly a left-wing Jewish identification, intellectual, cultural, values. If anything, we were tough on Israel." They were sympathetic to the idea of a Palestinian state, getting into countless arguments with Dan's mother, who was very pro-Israel. (With communism faded, his mother had "returned to her roots.")
Susan: "Theo was keeping her name Theodora Cohen as an actress."
Dan: "We changed neither our names nor our noses."
Now Susan Cohen said she is "totally dis-illusioned with the world. I had always seen through the right; after this, I began to see through the left.
"I lost my ideological, or humanitarian moorings. It made me a worse person."
She "had to start from scratch, had to force myself. Fighting back was better than collapse."
They watched the tragedy around the Leon Klinghoffer family with a mixture of sympathy and anger at Jewish groups. "I was completely sympathetic to the Klinghoffers, but they became heroes. Jewish organizations helped them but not us." Pan Am 103 was never adopted as a "Jewish" issue. Maybe beacuse it never really was...
Her experience has been that "Jewish organizations have not been friend, but that among individual Jews there has been help." Her latest disappointment on this front was AIPAC - the pro-Israel lobby. Last winter, AIPAC was pushing the Iran sanctions legislation. Frustrated with what they saw as the glacial progress made in beefing up the ineffectual UN Security Council resolutions aimed at forcing Libya to hand over the two indicted intelligence officers, the Cohens (working with Kennedy) piggybacked Libya sanctions onto the Iran bill. AIPAC balked.
"AIPAC tolerated us, but didn't go to the wall for us," said Susan.
"If an El Al plane was blown up, you really think we wouldn't have heard from the Jewish organizations that it was the crime of the century?" she asked, rhetorically. "Why isn't it the crime of the century because it happened to Americans?"
It is to Washington, not Jerusalem, that she looks for justice. "It' s an American problem," she says.
Because of their anti-Syria focus, the Cohens have been embraced by groups opposed to an Israel-Syria treaty.
The Cohens do not identity with the pro-Israel right, but Susan said, "I go where ever I have to go. My agenda is clear and simple. It' s insane not to want peace in the Middle East," she said, "but how to get it is another question.
"Some right wingers say this land is holy land and is God given - that doesn't mean a thing to me. I'm not a nationalist. But I feel Syria helped to murder my child."
Susan Cohen will "fight against recognition of Syria until the truth about Pan Am 103" emerges. "Put the truth out. Don't make arrangements of peace by denying what happened."
The current situation, she said, is like "Holocaust denial. I don' t like to compare, but you could argue that the world would be much happier if it didn't know about the Holocaust."
Interviewed a few weeks before the defeat of incumbent prime minister Shimon Peres, she said, "When I said I could now se through the left, what I meant was that at one time I was on the side of Peres completely." She supported the establishment of a Palestinian state - "even today, I'm not sure of the argument against it" - and she remains unsympathetic to Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
But "I see through the left," too. Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, "is a horrible brutal dictator, and he helped murder my child and other good people," Cohen said. "Well, that does give me pause." But is Hafez al Assad the only killer in that part of the world ?
Regarding the Israeli left Cohen said: "Their idealism and humanity is marvelous, but Labor has been wrong. They shouldn't cover up terrorism, drugs of Assad."
Her husband said they were "enraged at Pan Am."
Pan Am was spinning theories of what happened, trying to take the onus off of the airline. Pan Am had been warned, and the bomb was smuggled abroad in Frankfurt. The new theories ignored these facts, substituting for them alternative theories, all of which had the net effect of letting suits - off the hook.
But the Cohens' special ire is reserved for the State Department and White House. They began calling Washington officials around the time of the Bush inauguration in January 1989, after hearing nothing from outgoing president Ronald Reagan. Dan Cohen recalled a GOP staffer telling them, "`No one is paying any attention to you down here. If you don't get the media you're going to be forgotten.' We remembered that from that moment."
"We were different from other family members," his wife said. "I had not been a true believer in the system. Unlike others, I was not intimidated by power." Others could not "imagine standing up and saying anything strong to someone in power."
Unlike other family members, the Cohens wanted a real investigation. "Get the bastards," Cohen said.
The State Department did not send any high level representatives to Lockerbie. Reagan and Bush didn't answer their letters.
Until April 1989. On the 103rd day after the bomb the organization of Pan Am 103 Families went to a Washington vigil. "There was lots of press," Dan Cohen recalled. "Bush invited 5 or 6 of us in for chat."
"We didn't want to meet," his wife said. "We were fighting this fight as outsiders against the government. Some of the family members gushed in front on the president. They talked to Bush about airlines security, " skipping the terrorist focus.
But the gap with Bush widened into hostility when Bush made a 1990 visit to Assad. It was around Thanksgiving, Dan recalled. Their lawyer had just told them the government was going to release the autopsy photos - warning them to not to accept them or to get professional help if they did.
At this point, Libya had not been mentioned in connection with the case, and Bush was going off to see Assad. The Cohens saw red.
They wrote a furious letter to Bush and got no response.
But Susan sent a copy of the letter to Chicago columnist Mike Royko, who printed it. After the Royko column, the Cohens received a letter from Bush, denying that he was captive of the sheikhs. They sent Bush' s response to New York Times' Abe Rosenthal who wrote a column about it. Bush was furious, and some family members thought they were wrong for embrassing the president.
They are still sore at Bush. "The only public comment Bush ever made on Pan Am 103 was `bum rap'" Dan said. Following the Justice Department indictments of the Liyans, Bush told a press conference that Syria had received "a bum rap."
The Cohens still believe Syria was involved. The PELP-GC group arrested in October '88 was Damascus-based; two months later the plane explodes. They don't buy the idea of a coincidence.
In December 1994, on the sixth anniversary of the bombing, Susasn met with President Clinton. "He was on his way to meet Assad. I told him not to go."
National Security Adviser Anthony Lake told them there is "no solid evidence" of Iranian or Syrian involvement. But when Dan asked FBI director Louis Freeh whether there was any evidence of Libyan involvement before the PFLP guys were arrested, he said no. So, Dan insisted, "the hand off theory makes sense."
According to this theory, the Iranians hired a Palestinian group to blow up an American plane. When the Palestinians were arrested, there was a hand off to the Libyans. No administration has bought the theory.
For all that, the Cohens say they have received "better treatment" from the Clinton administration. "I was given people to talk to," Susan said. "They get our input, but we don't influence them." Most of all, they haven't influenced Clinton to honor his commitment to reopen the inquiry into Syria and Iran, inexplicably closed after the Libyan indictments. After receiving Clinton's letter in 1992, they showed it to journalist Mike Wallace. Dan said Wallace dropped it on the table and said. "`Promises, promises.' Boy, was he right."
Mostly, they cannot understand, in Dan's words, "How could the most powerful government on earth just allow the greatest terrorist attack on American citizens in history and do nothing?"
Dan said they "were told very high up that the reason they wanted Pan Am 103 to go away was to `put an end to the cycle of violence."
After many years of resisting the tide, the Cohens signed on to the idea of bringing a civil suit against Libya. They feared that Libyan feelers about paying people off would lead most family members to cave.
San Dan, "We were afraid we'd get a payoff, but there'd be no justice."
Then the new anti-terrorism bill allowed them, under certain conditions, to sue a foreign country in a U.S. court. "We'll back a global settlement."
Now they see any chance of getting Libya into a court over Pan Am 103 as better than nothing. "We'll back a global settlement," they said, but not an out-of-court settlement. They want a chance for a trial.
What saved Susan was the struggle, the desire to "fight this fight."
"I don't know what else to do."
Their pain, they said, will never go away. It is the central premise of their world view. "Anything can happen, the worst thing in the world can happen to you," Susan said, "I know that now."
Looking back at the long bloody road from Lockerbie, Susan concluded,
"I know what chance we have of succeeding. But for private people with
no money, we've done pretty well."