PITTSBURGH — What should I buy for the children of the Hamas terrorist who tried to kill my wife?
I’m sorry, some context is needed. Let me explain.
In the summer of 2002 Hamas, targeting both Israelis and Americans, struck a cafeteria at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The blast, triggered by an innocuous-looking backpack, threw my wife, Jamie, across the blood-streaked linoleum floor and killed the two friends with whom she was sitting.
Years later, after returning to the United States, I embarked on a psychological journey that led to eastern Jerusalem and the childhood home of the terrorist who set everything in motion.
Not out of revenge. Out of desperation.
It was never my intention to become a reconciler, to become one of those victims intent on meeting with the perpetrator. In truth, after the bombing — as Jamie was tortured by doctors treating the burns that covered portions of her body — I refused to face what had occurred at Hebrew University. In my mind it remained passive and impersonal, as though it was the inevitable consequence of some larger political struggle. It was safer that way.
“Nobody tried to kill her,” I thought to myself. “It just happened.”
This is the thought to which I clung as we rebuilt our lives in the United States, lives full of therapy sessions and mangled recollections. None of which allowed me to move on, to move beyond what had occurred. I was a mess.
Then, one evening, while digging through archived news clips, engaged in a desperate attempt to overcome the terrorist attack by understanding it fully, I learned his name: Mohammad Odeh. And suddenly he was human, this murderer. And then I found something strange in an Associated Press article on Odeh’s capture by Israeli police in 2002: Odeh told investigators he was sorry for what he had done since so many people died in the university attack.
Upon reading, I thought, “This is a misquote, a typo.” Hamas terrorists are not remorseful. They are not sorry. They are programed to hate. They are robotic, marching, guns raised in the air, faces wrapped by folds of dark cotton, chanting their drone-like mantras: Death to Israel. Death to the Zionists. May the martyrs be praised.
And I knew one thing: I needed to learn if this was true, if Odeh had indeed expressed remorse.
So this is the story: Five years after the bombing, I found myself slack-jawed in a Jerusalem Toys “R” Us looking at plastic squirt guns and Hebrew-talking Elmo figures thinking, “What do I buy for the children of the man who tried to kill my wife?”
A visit had been arranged with the Odeh family by my Palestinian translator, Mariam — the family had invited me to their home in East Jerusalem, which is why I was wandering the aisles. I needed an offering, something to demonstrate that I was not coming for revenge.
When Mariam picked me up, I was holding a Rubik’s Cube and a stencil set. She eyed them and smiled. “Not necessary,” said her expression as I opened the door to a silver Peugeot. What she didn’t know is that I was also carrying a knife. And though I had told myself, while placing the knife in my pocket, “Not necessary,” I had brought it anyway. Just in case.
When we arrived at the house, I was served spiced tea. With Odeh’s mother, brother and children watching, I took a sip, ceremoniously burned my tongue and smiled. Mariam nodded. They wanted me to speak.
“I’m not here for revenge,” I said. “I’m simply here to meet you and try to understand what happened. That is all.”
There was silence. And then, suddenly, a flurry of Arabic as Mohammad’s mother and brother began speaking simultaneously, Mariam doing her best to keep up:
“His mother says, ‘We didn’t know what he was doing, we would have stopped him if we only knew.’ ”
“His brother says, ‘He broke. He would watch Palestinians being beaten on the news. He used to sit in front of the TV for hours.’ ”
“His mother says, ‘When they told us what Mohammad did, we were in trauma. We didn’t believe it.’ ”
“And then, the words I had come for appeared as Mariam turned to me and said, “Mohammad has told them he is sorry, that if he could turn back time and change everything, he would.”
I nodded internally, understanding nothing as his brother looked at me and said, “We don’t understand why you have come without a gun. Why don’t you have a gun? If it were me, I’d be angry.”
“This may sound cliche,” I said, “but I’m sick of the violence. I’m sick. I just want understanding and, perhaps, peace.”
“I want peace, too,” he said. “We all do.”
As he spoke, a toddler — his daughter — plucked a photo album from my backpack. She began flipping pages, giggling at pictures of my daughters as the Odeh family squawked for her to return my property.
I pulled out an orange rubber ball, rotated it before her eyes and gently pulled the album from her grip as she grasped the toy. The family clapped. And I realized, I would never get my ball back.
(The author has written a memoir about his experience titled “Shrapnel.” For excerpts and information, visit shrapnel-memoir.com.)