Struggle Continues for Families of Victims

Death by international terrorism brings the same devastation to a family that a fatal car crash does down the street. But it also brings so much more.

It's death with the world watching, diplomats scurrying, legal systems colliding, activists agitating and years passing before anything finally gets done.

When terrorism ends life, say the families of victims and specialists in death's aftermath, it brings nothing else to a close.

"The loss of a child never closes," said Stephen Flatow, whose daughter Alisa was killed in a 1995 bombing in the Gaza Strip, for which he is still seeking justice. "You grow with it. It molds you. You try to mold it."

Death by terrorism usually means waiting — 12 years in the bombing of a Pan Am jetliner over Lockerbie, Scotland, that resulted in a verdict Wednesday. And there's the realization no punishment yet drawn up can possibly fit the crime.

When Vicki Cummock heard the Lockerbie verdict, she did some quick math: One man sentenced to a minimum of 240 months for 270 deaths, including that of her husband, John.

Less than a month in prison per victim, she calculated from Miami. "It's not justice at all," she said.

Death by terrorism often causes resentment against your own government, for not doing more, for not returning phone calls on the spot or even for representing the very qualities that made terrorists want to strike in the first place.

And there is the knowledge that geopolitics goes into the mix too.

"I don't want to see him rewarded," said Susan Cohen, who lost her daughter Theodora in the Pan Am bombing. She was worried after the verdict that Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi would get off easy.

"But I have a fear that he will be rewarded, because I am an American mother with a broken heart and he is a monster with oil."

Although no formula can capture degrees of heartache, grief counselors say the more complicated the circumstances, the more burdens are placed on the bereaved.

A death followed by litigation is generally more complicating than death unadorned. Death with all the entanglements of terrorism abroad may be more complicating still.

"It naturally inhibits aspects of the mourning experience," says Alan D. Wolfelt, director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colo.

He worries now that the Lockerbie families will be suddenly left on their own, with the verdict delivered and people in this country ever eager to declare "closure."

"North American culture believes people should resolve, get over, let go," he said. "This is a culture that lacks the understanding of the role of hurt. It's 'Buck up, carry on, this is over for you.' In fact, it's just beginning."

George Williams of Joppatowne, Md., who lost son Geordie in the bombing, said: "I'll get closure when they close the lid on my casket."

So long ago did the bombing happen, 1988, that watching the trial was like opening a time capsule. Out spilled artifacts from a period when columbine still evoked doves and flowers, and Oklahoma City stood for heartland manners.

Americans in uniform long have known they are targets, most recently in the October terrorist attack on the USS Cole that killed 17 sailors in Yemen's port of Aden.

But the Lockerbie families were among the first of today's generations to experience terrorism against U.S. citizens overseas — never mind at home.

Along the way, they and others learned to celebrate bits of progress without ever letting go.

"I think if we become crippled and allow our lives to be ruined, then the terrorists end up getting more victims," Cummock said.

John Seaman lost his niece Michelle in the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800, which was finally attributed to an accidental fuel-tank explosion, not terrorism.

He said the Lockerbie families may benefit from having received "some justice."

"Some, because the families didn't get to the root, they didn't get the real bad guys," he said from Albany, N.Y. Still, "They have been carrying a burden for 12 years and now some of that load they can put down. The world went to such great lengths to make people accountable."

For others, the struggle for accountability goes on.

More than five years after losing his daughter, Flatow is still trying to get Washington to win the extradition of the Palestinian he says is responsible.

"I've asked the question many times," he said from West Orange, N.J. "I'm told they're looking into it."