He was old, sick, crippled. And so the Palestinian terrorists, exhibiting even worse judgment than is expected from terrorists, selected Leon Klinghoffer, 69, to die.
What could they have been thinking, if they were thinking at all? Did they decide that Klinghoffer would accept death more docilely than other passengers aboard the hijacked Achille Lauro? He was a semiretired appliance manufacturer, a man who worked in his New York City store almost every day after his father died in 1929. If they thought him submissive, they were wrong. "Nothing came easy for Leon," recalls his sister, Ruth Mintz, 70. Neither did death.
Klinghoffer did what even the 330 able-bodied crewmen of the Italian cruise ship did not: He fought back. Confined to his wheelchair, he reacted angrily when one terrorist stole his watch and his lighter. He bit the hand of another.
Perhaps the terrorists expected the murder of an elderly Jewish invalid to be digestible, that this was a man no nation would mourn. "If so," says Justus Rosenberg, a professor at New York's Bard College, "the terrorists made a tremendous psychological mistake when they picked him."
If there is such a thing as an American creed, it encompasses protecting the weak and the helpless. The death of Klinghoffer outraged his countrymen and inspired a bold fighter mission to seize his killers. They could not have anticipated so angry a reaction: To a terrorist, the individual counts for nothing and the cause is everything.
Stanley Kubacki, 70, a Philadelphia judge who was aboard the Achille Lauro, believes the terrorists murdered Klinghoffer "because he was a nuisance to them in his wheelchair." To them, he was the most disposable of the hostages, a discard in their lethal game. He surely surprised them, as did his wife, Marilyn, 58. Her rigid composure and fierce dignity following the death of her husband was, in its own way, as courageous as his defiance. After the capture of the terrorists, she went to Sicily to identify them in a lineup. She did not request anonymity or protection. She walked up to each Palestinian and called him "murderer" to his face.
The terrorists took over the Achille Lauro on Monday, October 8. According to Kubacki, they herded the passengers into the ship's lounge and began segregrating them. One Austrian couple responded when the terrorists asked, "Any Jews here?" They were isolated with 12 American tourists and six British entertainers. Kubacki, while a prisoner, asked one of the terrorists, "Why are you doing this to us? None of us are involved in Middle East politics." He got no reply.
Tuesday morning, the segregated passengers were ordered to climb to the deck above the lounge. Klinghoffer, paralyzed on his right side from a stroke, remained behind in his wheelchair. When Marilyn asked about his welfare, a terrorist said, "Don't worry. He'll be taken care of."
Kubacki recalls that "at about 11:10 a.m. I heard the shots that killed Mr. Klinghoffer. I knew in my heart he had been killed." Hours later, when they climbed back down to the lounge, Klinghoffer was gone. Kubacki said to Marilyn, "I heard these shots and I fear for your husband." She turned ashen, and other passengers upbraided him.
On Wednesday, after the terrorists were off the ship, Kubacki escorted Egyptian and American officials to the spot where Klinghoffer had last been seen. He says that "on the pristine, white-painted side of the boat was a splash of blood." Kubacki says a bartender who witnessed the killing told him Klinghoffer had been shot twice, in the chest and in the head. Kubacki determined that the fatal bullet was fired by the Palestinian he had considered the most humane. "He put the bullet in Mr. Klinghoffer's head."
The unjust death of Leon Klinghoffer meant nothing to the terrorists. They could not be expected to comprehend a man like him. His life was not political. It was only human. A terrorist would not understand.