U.S. Seen Unresponsive To Tragedy

Wednesday, July 19th 2000, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) — When Pan Am flight 103 was blown out of the sky on over Lockerbie, Scotland, on Dec. 21, 1988, one of the 270 victims was Theodora Cohen, a 20-year-old American college student.

For the past 11 1/2 years, her parents, Susan and Daniel Cohen, of Cape May Court House, N.J., have waged a relentless struggle to avenge their daughter's death. In the process, they have been appalled by what they see as the refusal of the U.S. government to make the alleged perpetrator — Libya — pay a price commensurate with the crime.

The Cohens are part of a growing group of Americans who are embittered by the perceived unresponsiveness of their own government to personal tragedies in which foreign governments are directly or indirectly involved.

At issue is how far the government should go to satisfy the grievances of individual Americans when, at times, officials say, a purely confrontational approach against the offending countries could harm the national interest.

Like the Cohens, Stephen Flatow had a 20-year-old daughter who was killed in a terrorist bombing, this one occurring in the Gaza Strip in 1995. Iran was the alleged culprit, and Flatow, of West Orange, N.J., can't understand why the government won't do more to help him recover court-awarded damages totaling $247 million against Iran.

James Rubin, the recently departed State Department spokesman, has said the Clinton administration does not believe in judgments against foreign countries but in negotiations with them.

Thomas A. Johnson, a State Department lawyer, is unhappy with the government's efforts to help him recover his daughter, Amanda, who was taken to Sweden by his Swedish-born wife in 1995 in defiance of a custody order.

He and many other victims of international parental child abduction believe Attorney General Janet Reno has done little for them, particularly compared with her decision to use force to reunite a Cuban father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, and his son, Elian, this past spring.

``Janet Reno hasn't given us the time of day,'' says Johnson. In response, Mary Ryan, assistant secretary of state for consular affairs, says it's wrong to assume that U.S. officials ``somehow control the outcome of international parental-child custody disputes.''

In their new book, ``Pan Am 103,'' the Cohens angrily complain that neither President Clinton nor President Bush before him seemed interested in taking decisive action against the terrorists responsible for the tragedy.

Mrs. Cohen recalled being in the Oval Office on the day that Clinton signed legislation in 1996 to punish Libya, the country held responsible for the Pan Am tragedy.

Far from feeling a sense of triumph following a hard-fought battle, Mrs. Cohen found herself glaring at Clinton. ``I was fully aware that Clinton, the National Security Council and the State Department would find ways to dilute or dismantle ILSA,'' she writes, alluding to the shorthand term for the legislation.

She says events since then have borne out her fears. As for her decision to attend the signing ceremony, she said, ``I was there solely as a gesture of defiance.''

Mrs. Cohen found Bush equally temporizing. ``I wouldn't shake George Bush's hand for a million bucks,'' she writes. Bush lost the respect of the Cohens when he was to take part in a meeting with Syrian President Hafez al-Assad in the fall of 1991 in hopes of advancing the Middle East peace process. It was a time when Syria was considered the chief suspect in the Pan Am bombing.

Administration officials defend their record on Pan Am 103, noting that an exhaustive investigation, including interviews with 14,000 persons in over 50 countries, led to indictments of two Libyan intelligence agents who are now on trial in the Hague, Netherlands. In addition, they note, U.N. Security Council sanctions against Libya were imposed largely as a result of U.S. pressure.

Not all the family members of the Pan Am 103 victims are as embittered, at least outwardly. Many have disassociated themselves from the Cohens' hardball tactics and are willing to give the government the benefit of the doubt.

For the Cohens, that's not an option.

``By a policy of deliberate neglect, and calculated indifference,'' Mrs. Cohen writes,'' the government was doing what it could to silence the Pan Am 103 families and get the bombing out of the news so that nothing would have to be done about it.''


EDITOR'S NOTE — George Gedda has covered foreign affairs for The Associated Press since 1968.

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