In a particularly cruel act, terrorists boarded the cruise ship Achille Lauro in 1985, shot an elderly wheelchair-bound Jewish American named Leon Klinghoffer and dumped his body unceremoniously into the sea. The shocking incident prompted passage of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1992 which enables Americans victimized by terror to have their day in court. Inexplicably, the State Department is currently frustrating the one such group of Americans’ pursuit of justice.
The case of Sokolow v. the PLO concerns Mark Sokolow, who with his wife and daughters, were among 150 people injured in PLO bomb blast in Jerusalem in 2002. Incidentally, the blast, which killed an 81-year-old man, was set off by the first female Palestinian suicide bomber. After a series of fatal bombings in Israel in 2002-03, Sokolow and other American victims of terrorism filed suit against the PLO and agents associated with the Palestinian Authority in 2004.
It took years, but in early 2015, a jury awarded Sokolow and members of 10 other families who lost loved ones or who were otherwise injured or traumatized in terror attacks $218.5 million in damages. Under the Anti-Terrorism Act, the damages were automatically tripled, to $655.5 million. At this point, the wheels of justice ground to a halt.
In the summer of 2016, the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan invalidated the lawsuit, citing lack of overseas jurisdiction by U.S. federal courts in civil cases. The plaintiffs then tried to have the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the matter with a writ of certiorari. With the backing of the unanimous House Republican and Democrat Congressional leadership, the U.S. Congress filed an amicus brief at the high court in support of the victims’ claims. In June 2017, the justices formally sought the views of the Administration on the matter, but the request has been met with a deafening silence.
Lawmakers from all ends of the spectrum find this unacceptable. Last month, 22 U.S. senators signed a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Attorney General Jeff Sessions seeking action on the cert petition. On what is simply a moral issue, Sens. Chuck Schumer and Elizabeth Warren have found common ground with Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. On the House side, Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce sent Tillerson the House’s amicus brief with a personal letter. He also joined almost 70 House colleagues – again from far left to far right – to end the delays and get the issue before the high court. In addition, former Attorney General John Ashcroft, former FBI Director Louis Freeh, and other veteran criminal justice leaders have also filed a brief supporting the victims.
Among the theories for why the Administration has been avoiding officially weighing in on the matter is that career State Department officials fret that the awarding of damages of $655 million would throw a monkey wrench into ongoing efforts to work out a security arrangement acceptable to Israel and the Palestinians. Indeed, the Obama Administration publicly worried that such a sum would bankrupt the Palestinian Authority.
This has drawn the ire of conservatives who see the hand of the so-called Deep State at work. For them, it represents the triumph of unelected officials who are working against the Trump Administration. It appears Tillerson is quietly siding with them and their perceived diplomatic delusions instead of taking a principled stance to facilitate justice for Americans whose lives have been irrevocably harmed by terrorists. It is possible that the matter has simply not been a top priority for Tillerson who is grappling with crisis on the Korean peninsula and elsewhere.
In addition, it is widely reported he wants to shrink and streamline the State Department and keep it focused on a smaller number of high-stakes matters. However, even conceding this point, it is hard to rationalize why the Sokolow case would be shunted to the side. The issue has been adjudicated for more than a decade. What else is there to know? If the State Department is, in fact, nervous that awarding the damages would imperil efforts to mediate peace between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, then this raises a question about Palestinians’ commitment to a peaceful arrangement for the region. An insistence for the U.S. to abandon the legal claims of its own citizens is hardly a good-faith basis for negotiation.
Harry Truman once said, “Most of the time most people know the right thing to do ...it’s the doing of it that gives them trouble.” The Sokolows and other families have waited long enough. It is clear what the right thing to do is. It is time to just do it.