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The Achille Lauro Hijacking — “These sons of bitches must be prosecuted”

On October 7, 1985, four men, including mastermind Muhammad Zaidan, aka Mohammed Abul al-Abbas, from the Palestine Liberation Front (PLF) hijacked the Italian MS Achille Lauro liner off the coast of Egypt, as she was sailing from Alexandria to Ashdod, Israel. 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. As many of the hostages were American tourists, President Ronald Reagan deployed the Navy’s SEAL Team Six and Delta Force to stand by and prepare for a possible rescue attempt to free the vessel from its hijackers.

On October 8, after being refused permission by the Syrian government to dock, the hijackers murdered Leon Klinghoffer, a retired, wheelchair-bound Jewish American businessman, shooting him in the forehead and chest. They then forced the ship’s barber and a waiter to throw his body and wheelchair overboard. Read more

Dealing with a Reunified Germany

With the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, the long-awaited reunification between East and West Germany began. A mere two weeks after the fall, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl announced a 10-point program calling for enhanced cooperation between the two sides, with a view toward eventual reunification. While no timetable was proposed, events began to rapidly accelerate in early 1990. In March, the Party of Democratic Socialism was heavily defeated in East Germany’s first free elections, which paved the way for a coalition government with a platform of speedy reunification. Second, East Germany’s economy and infrastructure underwent a near-total collapse, prompting the two German states to sign a treaty on monetary, economic and social union in May. The East German Parliament then passed a resolution on August 23, 1990, seeking accession to the Federal Republic of Germany; this was signed and then ratified by both sides. In an emotional ceremony, at the stroke of midnight on October 3, 1990, the black-red-gold flag of West Germany — now the flag of a reunited Germany — was raised above the Brandenburg Gate marking the moment of German reunification. Read more

Negotiating the Montreal Protocol on Protecting the Ozone Layer

As global concerns grow over the effect of climate change and the devastating effects it already is beginning to have on agriculture, wildlife and the economies of lesser developed countries, there has been increasing despair that such issues are too great and that the international community will never be able to agree on a robust course of action. And yet, from the not-too-distant past, is a stunning example of just what the world can do when faced with a seemingly intractable environmental problem.

Only 30 years ago, scientists were deeply concerned over the growing hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica, which helps absorb harmful ultraviolet radiation and which was caused by man-made chemicals, such as refrigerants. That spurred countries, primarily the U.S. and the European Community, to reach an agreement on limiting and then eliminating these chemicals — the Montreal Protocol.   Read more

The 1985 Mexico City Earthquake

On the morning of September 19, 1985, an 8.1-magnitude earthquake hit the western states of Mexico and including Mexico City.  Western Mexico is particularly vulnerable to earthquakes with the Pacific plate and Cocos plate moving against the North American plate actively.  As Mexico City is situated on an ancient lakebed plateau composed of mostly dirt and sand, the ground is less stable than bedrock, thus leading to major damage.  The earthquake lasted around three minutes causing older buildings and poorly constructed infrastructure to fall.  As well, the tremors led to gas mains to break causing fires and explosions throughout Mexico City. The earthquake resulted in around $3 billion to $4 billion in damage.  In the aftermath of the earthquake, about 3,500 buildings had collapsed or were seriously damaged.  Most of the damage was focused on the historic downtown area of Cuauhtémoc.  The death toll, a number which is disputed, is most often cited to be 10,000 people, but many agree that the number could be as high as 40,000. Read more

Scotland, A Land Apart

Scotland can trace its links to the United Kingdom to more than 400 years ago, when James VI, King of Scots, ascended to the thrones of England and Ireland upon the death of Queen Elizabeth I of England in 1603, thus uniting England, Scotland, and Ireland under a single monarch, with each keeping its own parliament and laws. When England’s Parliament passed the Union with Scotland Act in 1706 and Scotland’s Parliament passed the Union with England Act in 1707, England and Scotland were formally united into a single kingdom of Great Britain.

The growth of Scottish nationalism after World War II led to calls for greater autonomy.  A referendum in 1997, which supported the creation of a Scottish parliament with devolved powers from the United Kingdom, led to the first meeting of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. In the 2007 Scottish parliamentary election, the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP), which advocates  Scottish independence, was able to form a minority government.  Just four years later, in 2011, the SNP was able to form the very first majority government since the formation of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. This allowed the SNP to push for a referendum on Scottish independence.  After considerable negotiations, a deal was worked out between the UK government and the Scottish Parliament on terms relating to the referendum. The referendum on Scottish independence took place on September 18, 2014 and was voted down by a surprisingly large 55-45% margin.    Read more

Oil, Blood and Steel: The Failed Attempt to Create a Democratic Congo

This is the story of how a corrupt multinational oil company, a self-centered dictator,  lingering ethnic tensions, and lack of attention from the West all served to undermine efforts to transform a Marxist-Leninist client state into a democratic African nation.

Congo’s struggles have for years been complicated by outside influence from its former colonial ruler, France, with foreign (i.e., usually French) companies seeking to profit from the small country’s rich oil reserves. Supported by France, the oil company Elf Aquitaine was able to force the Congolese government into accepting wildly unfavorable terms on profit-sharing (13% vs. 51% that other African countries received).  The company was later found guilty of an unrelated fraud scandal in 1994, which brought to light its questionable business practices in Africa. President Pascal Lissouba sought transparency and better treatment from Elf, but was refused. Read more

Egos and Architecture — The Joys of Embassy Building in the 1980s

The design of U.S. embassies has swung through varying phases over the past several decades. Some embassies, such as the one in Athens, were designed by world-renowned architects like Walter Gropius. Security concerns beginning after the Embassy Beirut bombing in 1983 led to the construction of embassies with blast-proof walls and long setbacks, which were often built away from city centers in the suburbs and were often criticized for being “fortress embassies.” In the past few years, the pendulum has swung back toward the middle, to critically acclaimed buildings like those in Beijing and London which are also secure. (Go here to read more.)

Whatever the trend, the task falls on the State Department’s Office of Foreign Building Operations (FBO), to design U.S. embassies, consulates and other government property worldwide. And sometimes, the difficulties of security and architecture can take a backseat to the more vexing problems of tight budgets, multiple demands, and in-house politicking. Read more

The Grisly Tradition of Beheading

The act of beheading has been used as a means for execution and retribution for millennia. The guillotine, which was originally welcomed as more humane, was used in France until 1977 (capital punishment was outlawed there in 1981). Sharia law in many Islamic countries determines the punishments for crimes, of which beheading is one. Saudi Arabia, for example, still imposes beheading for such crimes as murder and drug trafficking and is often done publicly.  Terrorist groups have also resorted to beheading as a grisly way of gaining attention.  In 2002, for example, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was abducted by a Pakistani militant group and decapitated by al Qaeda member Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Paul Marshall Johnson, Jr. was an American engineer living in Saudi Arabia who was abducted by militants tied to al Qaeda. Despite American and Saudi attempts to deal with the situation diplomatically, Johnson was beheaded on June 18, 2004.  Three other Americans were also beheaded in 2004, this time in Iraq by militant Islamists in response to the torture at the Abu Ghraib prison. Recent beheadings of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff by ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) have brought back painful memories of these events.  Read more

“The Worst Day” — 9/11 and the International Response

“It was the worst day we have ever seen, but it brought out the best in all of us.” –Senator John Kerry

In the hours and days after the tragic attacks of September 11, 2001, nations across the world gathered in solidarity and commiseration for those who had lost their lives. The assaults on both the World Trade Center and the Pentagon stirred international outrage as the United States and the world mourned both the loss of life and the loss of security. French newspaper Le Monde released a front page article entitled “Nous sommes tous Américains,” “We are all Americans.” Public transportation across Europe shut down and millions gathered to pray and light candles in public squares. China, Cuba, North Korea and Iran all sent messages of condolence or lit candles to publicly acknowledge the tragedy. For Edward Hull, 9/11 was especially momentous, as he was at the Pentagon during the attack, getting briefed before he assumed his post as Ambassador to Yemen. Read more

Life as a POW in the Japanese-Occupied Philippines

Ten hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese forces successfully invaded the Philippines. Those Americans and Filipinos who did not retreat endured three years of Japanese rule, murder, torture, and hard labor. Thousands died in the infamous Bataan Death March, and countless more were coerced into work details or brothels. General Douglas MacArthur fulfilled his promise to return to the Philippines in late 1944, but fighting continued until the Japanese surrendered on September 2, 1945. In the following interview with G. Lewis Schmidt in August 1989, James J. Halsema recalls his experiences in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, the clever ways he found out about current events, and the humanity of the Japanese commandant.
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