Stephen M. Flatow is battling two governments: that of Iran, which a court ruled sponsored the terrorist group that killed his daughter, and that of his own United States, which opposes his collecting damages from Iran.
He wants to seize Iran's assets, he says, to strike a blow against terrorism. He sees that both as a way to stand up against the terrorists and to honor his daughter, Alisa."Parents' responsibility is to do for their kids," he told the Deseret News during an interview recently at the Community Jewish Center, 2 N. Medical Drive. "Just because Alisa's not here with me doesn't mean I've stopped being her father."
Flatow, a lawyer from Jersey City, N.J., was in Salt Lake to build support for bills in Congress that would make it easier for citizens to seize the assets of foreign countries that sponsor terrorism. He was hosted by the United Jewish Federation of Utah.
On April 9, 1995, in a suicide attack, a member of the Islamic Jihad drove a bomb-laden van into a bus near Kfar Darom on the Gaza Strip. Among the victims was Alisa Flatow, 20, who was in her junior year at Brandeis University and who had taken a semester off to study in a Jerusalem seminary.
Shrapnel from the bomb tore through her skull and she never regained consciousness.
In 1997, Flatow filed suit against Iran, accusing it of sponsoring the Islamic Jihad. He took the action under the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1996, a federal law that allows citizens to recover damages from countries sponsoring acts of terror.
Although Iranian officials were served legal papers, they refused to participate in the trial. However, he noted, "we had to still present a case" and prove that Iran was culpable in the attack.
"We had expert evidence from people in Israel, from our own State Department," Flatow said. He charged that Iran was spending between $75 million and $100 million yearly to sponsor terrorism, $2 million to $3 million of it going to the Islamic Jihad. Iran was that group's only sponsor, he added.
After a two-day trial, U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth, Washington, D.C., held Iran responsible and awarded $247.5 million in damages against that country.
But Flatow discovered that winning in court and collecting damages were two different things.
Officials of the Treasury Department refused to turn over lists of Iranian assets taken over by the U.S. government after the Iranian hostage crisis nearly 20 years ago.
"They claim that it is `burdensome' to locate them for us," he said.
So Flatow attempted to attach former diplomatic property of Iran, buildings that were leased out by the State Department.
However, the U.S. Marshal Service refused to serve attachment papers signed by Lamberth. When the judge held a hearing on the matter, Flatow's attempts to collect damages from Iran were opposed by lawyers for the State Department and the Justice Department.
The Clinton administration says that if victims of terrorism can seize the assets of foreign countries, then that might encourage the seizure of American property abroad. It is an argument that Flatow brushes off, saying only someone that had no respect for American rights in the first place would try such a thing.
Besides, he adds, President Clinton praised the Anti-Terrorism Act when he signed it.
The government and attorneys for Flatow filed briefs with the judge, who has taken the matter under advisement.
Meanwhile, Flatow hotly defends taking the action against Iran.
"The suit is designed to deter further terrorist assaults," he said. He compared it to the recent American strike against terrorist bases, "but I'm a private citizen. I don't have $60 million to launch missiles at mud huts in Afghanistan."
If his suit succeeds in collecting money from Iran, that may hit terrorists where it hurts, Flatow said. He is certain they calculate their finances before launching attacks.
Several bills pending in Congress may help advance the cause, he said. Meanwhile, he is pursuing his suit and speaking out as a way to strike back against terrorism.
But doesn't his high profile put him at risk? Doesn't it take courage to go after the terrorists? "It has nothing to do with heroics, nothing to do with courage," Flatow replied, "just parental responsibility."