The concept of a car-bomb is so ubiquitous in places like Iraq and Afghanistan that their use is often reported with near nonchalance.
This hasn’t always been the case, especially when the death toll has been high. Today marks the 30th anniversary of a Hezbollah-sponsored suicide bombing that claimed the lives of 220 Marines, as well as 21 sailors and soldiers. It was the most deadly attack against the Marines since Iwo Jima.
At about 6:20 in the morning on October 23, 1983, a yellow Mercedes-Benz truck laden with 2,000 pounds of explosives charged through the barbed-wire fence around the American military compound at the Beirut International Airport. It raced past two guard stations before careening into the U.S. Marine Corps barracks.
A ferocious explosion resulted. Eyewitnesses said the blast caused the entire building to levitate above the ground for a moment before it pancaked into a cloud of smoky debris and bodies. Investigators from the FBI reported that it was the largest non-nuclear explosion since World War II — and easily the most powerful car bomb ever detonated.
In the wake of the bombing, President Ronald Reagan called for decisive action: “We must deny legal havens to terrorist groups and hold accountable those countries that sponsor terrorism.”
In response to the Pentagon report covering the bombing, Reagan told the press: “The report draws the conclusion that the United States and its military institutions are by tradition and training, inadequately equipped to deal with the fundamentally new phenomenon of state supported terrorism. I wholeheartedly agree.”
To these points, President Reagan vowed that American forces would stay in Beirut until they could forge a lasting peace. Part of that strategy included a plan to bomb the Hezbollah training camp in Baalbek, Lebanon, where intelligence agents thought the attack had been planned.
Before it could be acted upon, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger aborted the mission, reportedly because he did not want to strain relations with oil-producing Arab nations. By February 1984, American troops had completely withdrawn from Lebanon, and the ominous warning of attacks yet to come was subordinated to the economics of oil production.
In subsequent investigations, it was determined that much of the blame for the Lebanon bombing should be laid at the feet of the Iranian government. In May 2003, a U.S. federal judge ruled that the terrorist group Hezbollah carried out the attack at the direction of the Iranian government. The ruling allowed families of the victims to sue Iran.
Four years later, in September 2007, U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth ordered Iran to pay more than $2.6 billion to survivors and family members. In March 2010, a lawsuit filed in new York sought to force Iran into paying the $2.6 billion judgment. In March 2012, Lamberth issued a judgment against Iran of $2.1 billion, to be paid to the families and survivors of the attack.
In the political response and the lawsuits that followed, we see a tragedy trebled. There is the loss of life; the further jeopardy of national interests and the suffering of families forced to live with endless pain.
The decade of wars following the attacks of September 11 does little save to amplify the failings cast in stone decades earlier. No president, then or since, has effectively assailed the core issues, nor have they placed economic interests in the proper subordinate position to humanitarian and democratic priorities. Until leader have the character and wherewithal to do so, a replay of these events is likely inevitable.