In 1985, on this day four Palestinian terrorists seize control of the passenger liner MS Achille Lauro off the coast of Egypt. Holding the passengers and crew hostage, they directed the vessel to sail to Tartus, Syria, and demanded the release of 50 Palestinians then in Israeli prisons. After being refused permission to dock at Tartus, the hijackers murdered wheelchair-bound American passenger Leon Klinghoffer and threw his body overboard.
The Achille Lauro Affair by Eric LippsThe incident provides a harsh test of President Gary Hart's administration. The President, fearing he will be charged with "weakness" by conservatives, first advises the Egyptian government against negotiating with the terrorists and then directs that a military response be readied. In consultation with the Israelis, whose successful 1976 raid on terrorists holding hostages at Uganda's Entebbe Airport had been made into a television movie, Hart directs that U.S. Marines storm the ship, which had returned to its port of origin, Alexandria.
The raid is a distinctly mixed success. Three of the four terrorists are killed, and the fourth, Abu Abbas, taken prisoner. However, several hostages are killed, including Marilyn Klinghoffer, wife and now widow of the man murdered earlier by the terrorists. It will be rumored for years that Mrs. Klinghoffer was shot by one of the U.S. troops.
In the aftermath, President Hart will be sharply criticized by liberals, including his immediate predecessor President Edward M. Kennedy, for taking armed action in preference to negotiations. Conservatives will join in, criticizing the Hart Administration for "bungling" the rescue attempt..
Kennedy's criticism will be particularly painful for Hart. The two men had been friends, and Hart had been among the second President Kennedy's strongest supporters in the Senate; EMK's sharp words will feel like a personal betrayal.