When terror hits home
In 1975, when I had just turned 9, my father was killed by terrorists.
He was supposed to be home early on that Jan. 24 for a family celebration of my birthday and that of my brother, who had just turned 11. Instead, while my father was at a business lunch at the historic Fraunces Tavern in New York’s financial district, a bomb exploded, killing him and three others. One of my father’s colleagues was decapitated, and silverware from the table was lodged in the torsos of the other victims. The Armed Forces of National Liberation, or FALN, a Puerto Rican terrorist group, claimed responsibility.
My father was just 33. Up to that point, his life had been an American success story. The only child of immigrants, he was raised in Washington Heights, a blue-collar section of Manhattan. He worked his way through college and went on to a job at J.P. Morgan, a firm at which his mother had worked nights as a cleaning lady. He was a terrific father. His death has left a gaping hole in our lives.
Now my family is facing a blow of a different kind.
President-elect Barack Obama has nominated a man to be his attorney general who was closely involved in former President Clinton’s decision as he was leaving office to pardon 16 FALN members convicted on conspiracy and weapons charges. Though no one was ever charged specifically with the Fraunces Tavern bombing, the FALN proudly claimed responsibility for it amid more than 100 others. Its attacks killed six people and wounded scores of others. Tellingly, the bombings stopped after 10 FALN members were convicted of conspiracy and weapons offenses and sent to prison in 1981. They were among those Clinton chose to pardon.
At the time of the pardons, Eric H. Holder Jr. was deputy attorney general. In considering his department’s recommendation on clemency, he met with supporters of the terrorists but ignored their victims. He pushed staff members to drop their strong opposition to a presidential pardon for the FALN members and alter a report they had prepared for the president recommending against clemency. Today, although two turned down their pardons because they were unwilling to renounce violence, many of the convicted FALN members walk free. And a man who was instrumental in their release may become the highest law enforcer in the land.
Holder said at his confirmation hearing Thursday that he thought Clinton’s decision to pardon the FALN members was “reasonable.” But they were bad people. During their Chicago trial, some of them threatened the life of Judge Thomas McMillen, who was hearing the case. Carmen Valentin, one of those later pardoned by Clinton, told the judge, “You are lucky that we cannot take you right now,” and she told other officers of the court, “You will be walking with canes and wheelchairs. ... Revolutionary justice can be fierce.” She also declared war against the United States. Dylcia Pagan, another recipient of Clinton’s gift, warned the courtroom: “All of you, I would advise you to watch your backs.” McMillen was convinced the defendants would continue being terrorists as long as they lived. “If there was a death penalty,” he said at their sentencing, “I’d impose the penalty on you without hesitation.”
From the FALN, my family learned about the inexplicable randomness of terrorism. But we never saw ourselves as victims. My brother, Tom, and I were pushed to self-sufficiency and rose to the challenge, focusing on school and sports and college, beginning careers, marrying and having kids.
We went on because we couldn’t let my father’s memory down. Not to overcome the obstacle of his death would have diminished the meaning of his life, and we loved him far too much for that. But we’ve remained aware that terrorism can strike anywhere, any time. We haven’t had the luxury of forgetting that.
On Sept. 11, 2001, Tom and I were commuting together to our downtown jobs. Soon after we parted, I watched, horrified, as first one and then another plane hit the World Trade Center. I thought I might die that day but I managed to get home to my wife, Danielle, and our kids.
Our closest cousin -- my father’s godson -- did not get home that night. Steven Schlag, 41, worked on the 104th floor of the North Tower. He died that day, leaving a wife and young children.
We Americans have to make clear that we will not tolerate officials who would put our lives in jeopardy by releasing terrorists. It is a disrespectful affront to all Americans, particularly to those of us who have come face to face with their violence.