Gerson fights for victims’ rights

GW professor Allan Gerson fought successfully to change U.S. policy to allow victims of crime abroad to sue foreign governments in a U.S. court. Representing families of Pan Am Flight 103 bombing victims, Gerson pushed for airline reform that he said might have prevented the Sept. 11 attacks.

Gerson, a research professor of international relations and co-director of GW’s Institute for Peace Building and Development, released a book in October about four families affected by the 1988 plane bombing that is attributed to Libyan terrorist activity. He discussed the book with about 20 students and faculty members Nov. 28, saying the United States has not taken lessons from past terrorist attacks to prevent further harm.

The book, The Price of Terror: One Bomb, One Plane, 270 Lives: The History-Making Struggle for Justice After Pan Am 103, outlines Gerson’s efforts to pass a 1996 antiterrorism and death penalty act that allows Americans to sue foreign governments. Now, Gerson said, families of all Flight 103 victims except one have joined him in a civil suit against Libya, hoping to find closure in the worst act of terrorism against American citizens before Sept. 11.

He said the case should go to trial in February.

Americans, along with government officials, are “in denial that a war of terrorism has been declared on the U.S for a decade,” Gerson said.

The 747 jetliner suddenly exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, Dec. 21, 1988, and killed 259 passengers and 11 people on the ground.

Two years later in July 1990, investigators determined that an explosive device caused the crash.

Gerson recounted the story of Victoria Cummock, wife of victim John Cummock. She had been very active in her community and was able to meet Florida Governor Jeb Bush shortly following the bombing. Cummock told Bush she wanted to meet with his father, former President George Bush, and her request was granted to her surprise.

The president said all Cummock could do was “get on with life,” Gerson said, which was something she had been told many times before.

She then went to Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and asked them to create a commission to determine what happened on Flight 103. A commission formed and in 1990 recommended security measures similar to what current President George W. Bush has subscribed for the country since Sept. 11.

At the time of the bombing, Gerson said nearly all European airports already used the recommended provisions, which include X-ray baggage checks, while only 10 percent of U.S. airports took such measures at the time.

The committee also recommended airports ensure allied countries share intelligence with airport security and people with significant training look at the X-rayed carry-on luggage.

Gerson said U.S. airport security has increased since 1990, when employees had four to six hours of training in how to check X-rayed baggage. But it is still not enough, he said.

According to the committee’s recommendation, the United States should banish terrorists and punish states that sponsor terrorism.

“This sounds identical to what President George W. Bush said after September 11,” Gerson said. “Why were these recommendations not heeded?”

Gerson also discussed how he helped Pan Am pilot Bruce Smith, whose wife was lost in Flight 103, change U.S. and Libyan laws to sue Libya for his wife’s death.

Smith was the only person who initially took Pan Am’s settlement offer of $100,000. Gerson said Smith did not believe the bombing was Pan Am’s fault and took the money to the State Department to start an award program for people who provide information leading to a terrorist’s arrest.

The State Department eventually offered $2 million for Smith’s program, the Air Transport Association gave $1 million, and Gerson raised $1 million. The fund still awards anyone who finds or gives information leading to the capture of terrorists.

During the Reagan administration, Gerson served as counsel to the U.S. delegation to the United Nations and a senior fellow for international law and organizations at the Council on Foreign Relations. He co-authored the book with Jerry Adler of Newsweek.

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