Jewish World Review Oct. 1, 2001 / 14 Tishrei, 5762

Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby
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An unpardonable act

Mr. Jacoby's column will not appear this week. But in light of current events, we offer an encore of a column that first appeared in September, 1999. It is worth remembering that George W. Bush is not the first president to confront the question of how to respond to terrorism. -- FOR a time, the bombs seemed to explode without letup.

In Chicago, they bombed Marshall Fields, Bonwit-Teller, the police headquarters, the Holiday Inn on Lake Shore Drive, the Merchandise Mart, the County Building, a military recruiting center, the Great Lakes Naval Training Center, and the Standard Oil of Indiana building. They even bombed the Woodfield Mall in suburban Schaumburg. "Capitalists understand it more," the terrorists said, "when they feel it in their pocketbooks."

In New York, they blasted the Gulf & Western Building and the Chrysler Building. On Jan. 24, 1975, one of their bombs tore through the Fraunces Tavern in the heart of the city's financial district. Windows shattered, stairs collapsed, blood spewed everywhere. Four diners were murdered, 57 others were wounded. They bombed Mobil's offices on East 42d Street, fatally driving shards of glass into a young newlywed named Charles Steinberg. Three officers were maimed for life when a bomb exploded at the New York City police headquarters on New Year's Eve, 1982.

All told, the 16 Puerto Rican terrorists whose sentences Bill Clinton has offered to commute were responsible, along with their comrades, for some 130 bombing attacks between 1974 and 1983. At least six people were killed and more than 80 were wounded in those attacks, and property owners sustained millions of dollars in damages.

And that only covers the violence they unleashed within the United States. In Puerto Rico itself, they wrought even more bloody mayhem, beginning with the murder of a police officer in 1978. In December 1979, they ambushed a Navy vehicle in Sabana Seca, killing two of the 17 passengers and badly wounding nine. In January 1981, they bombed the Air National Guard base in Carolina and destroyed nine fighter jets.

All this savagery was committed in the name of Puerto Rican independence, a cause that the overwhelming majority of Puerto Rico's people have rejected for decades. In a 1993 plebiscite on Puerto Rico's future, only 4.4 percent of the voters favored independence. In another plebiscite last winter, the independence vote was even more minuscule -- barely 3 percent.

There is a widespread assumption that Clinton's offer to pardon the Puerto Ricans is designed to advance his wife's expected Senate candidacy in New York. Will anyone be surprised if this suspicion turns out to be true? All the same, a host of worthies have petitioned for the terrorists' release, among them Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Coretta Scott King, Cardinal John O'Connor, and several members of Congress. Their strongest argument is that the prison terms to which the 16 were sentenced -- some of them were given more than 60 years -- are out of proportion to their crimes.

It is true that none of these terrorists was convicted of murder. But that doesn't mean they weren't guilty of murder. The killings they were tied to were not federal crimes in the '70s and '80s, says Carlos Romero-Barcelo, the former governor of Puerto Rico, who now represents the island in Congress, so trying them for murder (in federal court) wasn't an option. Instead they were tried on lesser charges: seditious conspiracy, interstate transportation of firearms with criminal intent, armed robbery, conspiracy to create bombs. But the judges and juries were not deceived about the true scope of their crimes.

Coretta Scott King, Cardinal O'Connor, and the others can be forgiven for not being aware of that legal nicety. But what excuse can they offer for having more compassion for the terrorists than for their victims? And what possible explanation can they make for demanding not only that Clinton release them, but that he do so unconditionally?

Jesse Jackson says the terms of the president's commutation offer are "humiliating." What are those terms? That the prisoners sign a statement renouncing violence and that they not associate with other criminals. So far, none of the 16 has agreed to those trifling stipulations.

Clinton's proposed clemency deal is indeed humiliating, but not to the Puerto Rican terrorists. No: It is a slap in the face to the widows and children of the men these butchers killed. It is a stinging insult to those whose bodies were permanently mangled by the bombs these sociopaths set off.

US representative Louis Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat, is among those demanding that the prisoners be released with no strings attached. "They've done hard time,'' he says. ``They are serving what is in effect a life sentence . . . and a life sentence is unreasonable."

Gutierrez ought to look Anthony Senft in the eye and say that. One eye is all Senft had left after the 1982 New Year's Eve explosion at the New York police headquarters. "I have a life sentence," Senft says. A fellow officer, Salvatore Pastorella, has a life sentence, too: He was blinded in both eyes and lost the fingers on his right hand. A third cop, Rocco Pascarella, had to have his right leg amputated.

Where is their clemency? Where is the clemency for Joe and Thomas Connor, whose father was murdered when the Fraunces Tavern was bombed in 1975. "Not a day passes without our feeling the void left in our lives," they wrote last week.

When Clinton can bring the victims' punishment to an end, it will be time to talk about letting the terrorists walk. Until that day comes, they can rot in their cells. --

Footnote: 14 of the 16 convicted terrorists accepted President Clinton's offer of clemency.

Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist. Comment by clicking here.

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