Anatomy of a murder

Malcolm Kerr, the president of the American University of Beirut, was killed in 1984. His killers have never been caught, but his daughter Susan continues to search for the meaning of his death.

Malcolm Kerr handout image

RE rv25kerr 25/07/08
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Where is Malcolm Kerr when we really need him? We have asked this question in my family many times during the past 25 years of intifadas, suicide bombings, checkpoints, insistent terror and increasing complication in the Middle East. The question is always followed by a sigh because Malcolm Kerr, a brilliant scholar of Middle East politics, was a famous casualty of those complications, gunned down in January 1984 as he stepped out of a lift on the way to his office at the American University of Beirut. Kerr, a neighbour and family friend for 20 years, had been president of AUB for only 18 months.

Who killed Malcolm Kerr? And why? These unanswered questions have haunted the Kerr family for more than two decades. "Years before when I had ventured even slightly to find out what on earth had happened to Dad, I'd always been told, 'You'll never know'," Susan Kerr van de Ven writes in One Family's Response to Terrorism: A Daughter's Memoir, new from Syracuse University Press. In this brave, personal book, van de Ven recounts her family's search for truth and justice; and ultimately, movingly, understanding and forgiveness.

The last time I saw Kerr was in Los Angeles at Susan's wedding the summer before he was killed. He had just flown in from Beirut, the last of the family to arrive. He waltzed his daughter around the terrace of their home, ate a hearty slice of the wedding cake she had made herself. He looked proud. And weary. Five months earlier, a car bomb had killed, among others, the 12-year-old son of an AUB professor. In April a massive lorry bomb had exploded in the lobby of the US Embassy in Beirut, causing it to collapse on hundreds of people inside. David Dodge, AUB's vice president, abducted a year before by Hizbollah operatives, the first target of a new anti-US campaign, was still missing. Given Kerr's naturally understated personality and wry sense of humour - he was a man who took what he did seriously without taking himself too seriously - few of us knew that day what he was returning to. Earlier, however, he had confided to Susan: "I have a fifty-fifty chance of getting bumped off."

"It wasn't an isolated fear," explained van de Ven in a recent phone interview from her home in Cambridge, England. "He had so much background on what had happened in the Middle East. He knew about good American values and bad American policies. He knew that the US government doesn't always understand the places where it throws its weight around. And there he was, suddenly on the world stage. He didn't necessarily want all that attention, but he wanted very much to be at AUB."

It was a job Kerr seemed destined for. Born to American parents in Beirut in 1931, he grew up in the Middle East, and though he later studied at Princeton and Harvard and taught at UCLA, where he became dean of social sciences, he and his family spent long stretches of time in Beirut and Cairo. "Dad's appointment as AUB president marked the fulfilment of his inherited values and came at a time when the map of the Middle East was not only still transforming but crying out in full protest at its constant redrawing over centuries from the input of outsiders with outsiders' interests," van de Ven wrote.

So why had her father, in many ways an insider, been a target? Why had his affinity and affection for the region not afforded him some protection? Who would have wanted him dead? Van de Ven, her three brothers and her mother had grappled with these unknowns for years. But with the passage of time and the passage of the US Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, they decided to bring their father's case to trial.

The "decision to do something forceful" was incredibly complicated, van de Ven admitted. Two of her brothers would have preferred to let things be. Her mother, Ann, was concerned about the punitive, blaming effect of legal action. But Andrew, the youngest brother and the only child in Beirut at the time of his father's assassination, wanted to press forward, believing that to do nothing carried a form of moral guilt.

Straight out of college, Andrew had got a job working in the Situation Room at the US National Security Council. With access to intelligence reports, he became versed in Middle East politics, happening eventually on a crucial piece of information suggesting his father's assassination has been commissioned by senior Hizbollah authorities. Officials of the Iranian government were also implicated. Still, the family struggled with doing the right thing for the right reasons. "Revenge versus understanding," van de Ven said in our telephone conversation. "In the world of politics I now inhabit" - she serves as an elected Liberal Democrat councillor on South Cambridgeshire District Council - "you see different styles. Some love to attack; some search for common ground."

In 2001 the family finally found its common ground and filed a lawsuit, but agreed not to file for punitive damages. The investigation itself took months, with the family learning that their own government had not told them everything it knew. Not only did the Kerrs and their lawyers uncover reports by US intelligence in Beirut about Malcolm Kerr's activities - the CIA had been watching him - but they discovered their government had known the identity of the killers within three weeks of the assassination.

When the trial - Kerr v the Islamic Republic of Iran - finally took place, it was a muted affair. The Iranian government, as expected, sent no defence team. "The trial did not bring peace," van de Ven admitted. "We knew from the beginning it was only going to end up with symbolic gestures." (To date, the family has not been compensated financially.) Still, for Andrew Kerr, the trial marked the end of a journey. "After quietly putting years into fact-finding, he could get on with his life," van de Ven said. But for her it meant the challenge of writing their story, a process filled with discovery, doubt and debilitating illness.

"I had a migraine the whole time I was writing the Anti-Terrorism Act chapter," she admitted. "I had a blanket over my head as I wrote." When she got to the chapter about the family's decision to take legal action, her body - she has an inherited form of arthritis, shared with her father - shut down completely. Unable to even hold a spoon, she was forced to hire a nanny to care for her three young sons. "It was the summer of 2003," van de Ven remembered. "The war in Iraq had started. I could see the direct chain of events, what was happening in the world and what had happened to my father."

Still, she pushed on, comforted and guided by her father's letters from his last months in Beirut, which comprise one of the book's last chapters. "There's a momentum in these particular letters," she said. "Some were written one day after the next. I knew my father could tell this part of the story better himself." And while a great deal of the book was painful to write - "So many aspects of the story are too difficult to talk about" - she realised when the book was published this past spring that it "holds the words I wanted to say".

Still, like the investigation and the trial, none of this has brought Malcolm Kerr back, nor made his family, friends and colleagues feel his loss any less keenly. "He was an extraordinary victim of terrorism because he could have helped us to understand, better than almost anyone, what happened to him and why," van de Ven writes toward the book's end. "I have tried to do that without him." Denise Roig is the author of two works of fiction and a forthcoming memoir.