Syracuse University Magazine

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Q & A: Mike Kelly '75

The Toll of Terrorism

“Find a way to find the peace. Find a way. Don’t ever believe you can’t change things. Every time there’s an act of terror—every time there’s some evil piece, answer it. Do it one person at a time.” —From trial testimony as depicted in The Bus on Jaffa Road: A Story of Middle East Terrorism and the Search for Justice

As a student majoring in American studies and journalism in the mid-1970s, Mike Kelly spent countless hours at The Daily Orange office, then housed on East Adams Street in a rundown—but fondly remembered—building. “I practically lived there,” he says. “It was my home.” Now a seasoned journalist whose writing is regarded by colleagues as “deeply reported” and “meticulous,” Kelly finds himself at home all around the globe. As the author of three books and numerous prize-winning projects and columns for The Bergen Record in northern New Jersey, he has traveled the world covering the most significant stories of our times, including the 9/11 attacks, Hurricane Katrina, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the Iraq War.

From his home in Teaneck, New Jersey, Kelly spoke to Syracuse University Magazine associate editor Amy Speach about his most recent book, The Bus on Jaffa Road (Lyons Press, 2014), which chronicles a 1996 Palestinian suicide bombing in Israel that killed two young Americans, and the ensuing search for justice undertaken by their families.

The Bus on Jaffa RoadHow did the idea for the book originate?

After 9/11, I followed the story of terrorism all over, including taking several trips to the Middle East and then covering the 9/11 Commission hearings and subsequent congressional action to reform our intelligence services. This was a five-year journey, but I felt I wasn’t getting deep enough below the surface. What I wasn’t getting to is how terrorism affected ordinary people. That’s when I decided to do this book—to take one incident and follow it as closely as I could, particularly the aftermath, and how it affected the families after this kind of thing happened.

As a journalist, what sense of responsibility did you hold for this work?

I was committed to telling this story as accurately as possible while also capturing the right level of emotion. There were people in this story I never met because they died. I wanted to bring some sort of humanity to them, and that involved going over sensitive material—their diaries, for example. For young people, these are very sensitive documents. This is holy ground: walking into the lives of people who have died, trying to tell their lives in a way that’s credible and accurate, but at the same time remaining honorable to them and respecting them as people. I felt very driven to get that right.

What effect has writing this book had on you?

Despite all the talk about international politics and policies, ultimately, terrorism is about human beings. It is very personal. It affects individual lives in deep and indescribable ways, and it affects those lives for years. This story really reminded me of that, and of the importance of remembering that as a writer. It also forced me to get to the heart of what is truly evil in terrorism—the killing of innocent people.

What did your investigative journey encompass?

There were many layers of my research—trying to understand the families, the victims, the bombing, the court cases, and the related political, legal, and diplomatic issues. All of these different levels of research had their own internal complications. I tried to blend them into a narrative, working very hard on the structure to make it readable.

With the families, I really wanted to understand what happens when an act of terrorism occurs to somebody you love. How does it play into your life in the years afterward?

Generally, if someone is the victim of a crime, whether somebody stole their bicycle or did something far worse, the crime victim asks two questions: “Who did this?” and “How can I catch that person and hold that person accountable?” I found that terrorism victims ask those same questions. But unlike crime victims, who have a pathway to find the answers—they call on the police, prosecutors, and other levels of law enforcement, for example—with terror victims, there really is no pathway.

In the case of these families, they decided to make a very brave choice—to go to court and file lawsuits that are not unlike the kinds of wrongful death lawsuits that may occur after an automobile accident here in the United States. Someone is trying to hold somebody else accountable for doing something bad to them. That’s what these families tried to do, but on the much larger stage of international terrorism.

What was hard for you in researching and writing this book?

I think the hardest part was finding the right voice. I wanted to be able to tell this story in a way that captured the emotion, but I didn’t want to be emotional about it. At the same time, I wanted to discuss the complicated politics and legal issues without becoming overly legalistic. I wanted to find a voice that made the story understandable for people who perhaps didn’t really care about terrorism and didn’t know much about terrorism, or the law, or some of the complicated issues about diplomacy.

The second thing that was hard was the organization of the story. There are many layers to this story, from the personal to the elements of the crime itself, to the political issues and the various permutations from that, both in Israel and back here in the U.S. When I looked at all this and was trying to find the right narrative pathway, it finally clicked when I decided that, for me, the place where I reached an emotional fork in the road with this story was my interview with Hassam Salameh [who orchestrated the Jaffa Road bus bombing and other terrorist acts and is serving 46 consecutive life sentences in an Israeli prison].

So I deliberately start the book with that interview, and I start the epilogue with that interview. That’s no accident. I wanted the reader to understand that this story began with me looking into the eyes of a sociopath. And that in the end, I was still looking into the eyes of a sociopath. And there was no answer there.

The only answer, ultimately, was in the pain and in the desire of the families to go forward and try to make something positive out of what was so horrific.

To learn more, visit mikekellywriter.com.