What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?

David Harris-Gershon went to Israel/Palestine to try to reconcile with the terrorist who almost killed his wife. Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Research. It began with research on a campus computer. It began by sifting through archived newspaper articles, this time seeking information rather than an emotional conversion, as I had with Kathy. It began by zeroing in on the man I had been avoiding, whose existence I had been unable to face, afraid of what such an encounter might bring.

I learned his name – Mohammad Odeh. Learned he was the one who placed the explosives-filled backpack in the cafeteria where Jamie sat, eating.

The one who worked for Hebrew University as a painter.

The one disguised as a student, waiting in line with perfumed hands.

The one who ignited a mobile phone, calling the bag next to Marla and Ben, a folded paper balancing on top of it, a paper Jamie ducked beneath when his thumb opposed “send.”

The one who murdered.

The one who tried to murder.

The one who shoved hammers under my pillow and xylophones against our door.

The one who fashioned bereaved parents and siblings and lovers from nails and bolts and scrap metal.

The one with a young son, an infant girl.

The one nobody would understand. Ever.

The one I would eventually decide to confront.

I learned his name. And it became personal, this ability to point and say “Mohammad,” the primordial act of naming, of identifying with syllables, with established grunts and pauses, feeling as powerful as creation itself. He was named. He existed. But further details provided by the Jerusalem Post and the Times of London encouraged me to remain dispassionate: he was part of a Hamas terror cell, just one of many who had perpetrated, with the push of a button, numerous mass killings in restaurants and on buses across Israel. He was presented as another generic representation of evil, a representation that was comforting, that coaxed me into believing there were no “fingers to point, no what-ifs to consider – it had just happened, because evil happens, and that was all.

Newspapers: Forget Mohammad. He is just an archetype.
Me: Sure thing.

At first, I was prepared to accept this – to accept things the way I had for years. I focused on piecing together the logistics of how the bombing had happened, keeping a healthy dose of emotional restraint on hand, moving from A to B to C with the cold clarity of a statistician. But then I found something strange, something wrong. A misquote. Or a typo. It was embedded within an Associated Press article covering Mohammad’s 2002 capture:

After his arrest, Odeh told investigators he was sorry for what he had done since so many people died in the university attack, [Israeli] officials said.

Odeh told investigators he was sorry. It had to be a mistake – ideologically crazed terrorists don’t apologize. They don’t express remorse. They praise the struggle, hold up the jihadist’s banner and proclaim, in the name of Allah, for continued acts against the infidels. They are programmed, robotic, repeating the same predictable refrains while marching, faces disguised, guns raised toward the sky. Death to all Jews. Praised be the martyrs. Allahu Akbar. God is great.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Mohammad was not human. He did not reflect any recognizable sliver of the world I recognized as sane, rational, acceptable. He was not sorry. He could not possibly be sorry.

Me: I thought you said he was an archetype.
Newspapers: Oops.

I was on unstable ground, unable to discern where to step given this unanticipated, unmapped terrain. Not only was Mohammad named, not only did he exist, but his existence was abruptly made impossible. How could a person capable of orchestrating and executing the mass murder of innocent college students have the capacity for genuine contrition? How could a member of Hamas let slip such a statement? Odeh told investigators he was sorry. It was incomprehensible. I wanted to pass it off as editorial malpractice, or at the very least an inauthentic response to days of interrogation, and possibly torture, hoping the word sorry had been squeezed out of him as Israeli police poured water into Mohammad’s mouth. But two items from the article forced me to think otherwise. First, he was the only one of “fifteen terrorists captured to have made such an expression: The other members of the cell who were arrested did not express remorse, and some said they were proud of the attacks. Second, Odeh’s family in East Jerusalem responded with disbelief. According to Laurie Copans’ AP article, “Handyman is Arrested in Bomb Blast,” published August 21, 2002:

My brother just goes from home to work … and has nothing to do with any other thing,” Samr Odeh told The Associated Press outside his East Jerusalem home as Mohammed’s six-year-old son Hamza stood crying nearby at the mention of his father. “I deny the charges that the Israelis are trying to put on him.

It was clear that Mohammad’s family did not consider it possible that he could have bombed a cafeteria, did not want to consider it possible. This was not an ideologically extreme clan, a clan eager to embrace a son’s and brother’s martyrdom and proclaim his glory. Instead, they denied the veracity of the accusation. Samr’s words indicated a family horrified by Israel’s claim.

Mohammad had come from what appeared on the surface to be a moderate family, a family unwilling to accept his involvement with Hamas, with terrorism. But Mohammad had done it. He had admitted to doing it. And according to anonymous officials quoted in this reputable media outlet, he had expressed remorse. I couldn’t digest any of it, couldn’t stomach the digestive process. The experience felt akin to when, after years of vegetarianism, I broke down and ate two hotdogs laced with sauerkraut during a University of George football game. The lining of my stomach had not been prepared to process a pound of hormone-filled beef then, and today it wasn’t prepared to process the incongruity of learning that the terrorist who had tried to kill Jamie might be sorry for what he’d done.

I had spent years giving little thought to the fact that an actual person had been responsible for the bombing. Now, I was consumed by thoughts of the perpetrator as a fellow human, a remorseful criminal, a man with a crying son and a traumatized family. It was all I could consider, and such considering induced digestive distress. I was ill.

It mattered. Mohammad’s sincerity, the veracity of his statement, mattered. Why, I could not articulate.

Me: Why does it matter?
Me: I don’t know.
Me: So he might have expressed remorse? So what?
Me: It’s important.
Me: But it changes nothing.
Me: I know.
Me: He’s still a monster.
Me: I know.
Me: What, then?
Me: I don’t know how to answer.
Me: You’re pathetic.
Me: Thanks.

Unsure from where this impulse had been arisen, but sure that the impulse existed, I tried to dig up the truth.

My first thought was to contact the Associated Press journalist who had recorded Mohammad’s “words” from four years earlier. He was sorry – was it true? Maybe she still had her notes, maybe she would remember her source. I wanted her source. After finding her email on a site for professional newspaper reporters, I requested the information. But no reply came.

The only way you’ll know is to ask him, I thought. A nod came from deep within me, without any rational understanding of the mechanics involved. A decision had been made: I would try to secure a meeting with Mohammad, the idea feeling shaky. Seeking a confrontation with the perpetrator of the bombing had never been placed upon the buffet of potential treatments by those attempting to assist in my healing and recovery. Nobody had set this in a metal bin and identified it as an option. Here, psychotherapy au gratin. And next to it, sautéed compartmentalization. And just in this morning, a freshly caught terrorist who talks, answers questions, and is reportedly remorseful.

I had heard of victims intent on confronting their perpetrators. I knew about restorative justice. But such initiatives had always seemed bizarre. Self-flagellating. However, after learning that Mohammad may have felt remorse, the word began to resonate with possibility: restoration. I sensed that the only way I might understand what happened was to understand Mohammad, an understanding which could somehow give me back my lungs, my life.

(This piece is an excerpt from David Harris-Gershon‘s book What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife, which will be published in September 2013 by Oneworld Publications. To read more, order the book from Indiebound.)


One thought on “What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?

  1. I really appreciated both this article and the one in the paper Tikkun. I especially resonated to the misgivings people on the peace side expressed about taking this step, and I’m amazed at the courage it took, not just physically but psychologically. One to one meetings with those who have wronged us, and expressed remorse are as terrifying as they are powerful, even on a much smaller scale, say the workplace or the neighborhood. I’d be interested in knowing how your wife felt about these meetings, but maybe that’s in the book. It takes a person’s brave–I would say heroic– action to show others that it is possible. Thank you