Editor's Note: Two days later, the Greek government decided to release the man in custody and fly him back to Lebanon. If you think this looks like a way out of a) deciding whether to send him to Germany or to the United States, and b) angering Hezbollah, with all that implies, you are probably correct.
U.S. Navy diver Robert Dean Stethem was aboard TWA Flight 847 on June 14, 1985, scheduled to fly from Cairo to San Diego with intermediate stops. It never made it. The plane was hijacked in Athens by Shi’ite Hezbollah terrorists who first looked for passengers with Israeli passports. Finding none, they brutally murdered Stethem on a stop in Beirut and threw his body out on the tarmac. Most of the passengers were released, but five, including one Jewish passenger, were kept for 14 days until their release was negotiated. Their captors, in Beirut, thought they were safe from U.S. or other Western retaliation.
The FBI posted a $5 million reward for the capture of any of the hijackers. Mohammed Ali Hammadi, however, was caught two years later in Berlin. Germany resisted American attempts to extradite him to the U.S. and instead tried him in local court.
Remember the times.
Modern terrorism had its first flowering in Europe during the 1970s — airplane hijackings were almost ubiquitous, starting in European capitals and flying to Middle Eastern or North African airfields, demanding ransom or prisoner releases. The ugly truth of European politics, then and now, was that European countries were willing to barter with Palestinians, Hezbollah, and other radical Islamic organizations in order that they mostly leave Europeans alone. France, Switzerland, Germany, and others made deals — including an ignominious German trade of the three surviving Munich massacre terrorists for German passengers and crew members aboard a hijacked plane.
Historian Joshua Muravchik, in his book “Making David into Goliath,” wrote: “The world repeatedly submitted, paying ransoms and releasing prisoners, and granting a miscellany of other demands. In this climate, terrorists never needed to fear capture. If arrested, they could be confident that new hostage taking operations would follow to secure their freedom. Such appeasement had a corrosive effect on the spirit of Europe, as almost always happens when people bow to threats and violence rather than finding the courage to stand up to them.”
Hammadi served 19 years of a “life” sentence but was paroled suddenly in 2005. He returned to Lebanon before his release was made public — or even relayed to the United States government. Two days later, a German woman imprisoned in Iraq was released.
Back to the present.
Navy Times reports that the Greek government has taken Hammadi to Athens to face extradition, and some reports say he will go to Germany. Why? If he lands there, the U.S. is unlikely ever to see him — Germany doesn’t extradite people to face trial for crimes that have already been adjudicated there. But the death of a member of the United States military should never have been tried in Germany in the first place.
The United States has had an extradition treaty with Greece since 1931 and an additional protocol signed in 1937. An American request should prevail.
Stethem was posthumously awarded a Bronze Star, and the citation is a reminder of his valor:
Petty Officer Stethem displayed exceptional valor and professional integrity while a hostage of militant Shi’ite hijackers of Trans World Airlines Flight 847 at Athens International Airport, Algiers, Algeria and at Beirut, Lebanon. Exhibiting physical, moral, and emotional courage beyond extraordinary limits, Petty Officer Stethem endured a senseless and brutal beating at the hands of his fanatical captors. He drew upon an unwavering inner strength and absorbed the punishment. The hijackers were infuriated by his refusal to succumb, a symbol to them of the strength of the United States of America; and in their cowardly desperation, shot him to death. Petty Officer Stethem’s courage, steadfast determination, and loyal devotion to duty reflected great credit upon himself and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.
A guided missile destroyer bears his name.
It isn’t enough. Justice for Robert Dean Stethem should not be denied again.