For Allan Gerson, a Washington attorney and foreign-affairs expert, the war on terrorism didn’t begin on Sept. 11. By then, he had already been fighting that battle for almost a decade, as a lawyer for the families of Pan Am Flight 103, which crashed in Lockerbie, Scotland, on Dec. 21, 1988, with 259 passengers and crew aboard. Gerson and his legal team have attempted to blaze a new trail in international law by seeking to hold the Libyan government accountable in an American court for its alleged role in planting a bomb aboard the aircraft. The families’ lawsuit, which seeks billions in damages, is expected to receive a court date in New York early this year.
Gerson, 56, recounts this struggle in his new book, The Price of Terror: Lessons of Lockerbie for a World on the Brink, co-authored with Newsweek Senior Editor Jerry Adler. The book recaps a litany of frustrations: U.S. government officials who put their own needs above those of the families’; tensions between different clusters of Flight 103 victims’ families; fighting between lawyers, even those on the same side of the case; and grisly, absurdist courtroom debates that had surfaced in a prior lawsuit against Pan Am over how human lives and suffering should be valued. “If we’d known all the difficulties at the outset,” Gerson says, “we probably never would have proceeded.”
Gerson began his career as an attorney in the late ’70s. After a couple of years of appellate work, he took a position at the Justice Department, helping to prosecute Nazi-war-criminal cases. One defendant, a man named Fedor Federenko, was accused of being a Nazi guard at Treblinka, the death camp that exterminated large numbers of Jews near Gerson’s ancestral hometown of Zamosc, Poland.
Federenko, though, was not on trial for war-crimes charges; he stood accused of lying on his immigration paperwork when entering the United States years earlier. Despite the brutal allegations against Federenko, Gerson was conflicted about the case: He and his parents had also immigrated to the United States under false identities.
Indeed, Gerson—who spent his earliest years in a displaced-persons camp in Uzbekistan, after his Jewish family fled from the Nazis and then from the Soviets—didn’t even know his real name or birth date until he was a teenager in New York City. He was apprehensive about sending a defendant to his death—no matter how severe the accusations—for a transgression he himself had committed.
Gerson grappled with this moral issue by turning to art. After quitting his war-crimes position in the early ’80s, he wrote a screenplay about a fantasy meeting between himself and Federenko’s daughter, in which they argued over the meaning of justice. A Hollywood producer snapped up the rights to the screenplay, but the movie was never made. (Robert Greenwald Productions, in conjunction with FX, has just made an offer to create a film version of The Price of Terror.)
Federenko was eventually deported and executed. Gerson moved on to the Reagan administration, where he served through the ’80s as a top aide to U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick and Attorney General Edwin Meese. He later practiced law and worked as a Washington think-tanker.
Gerson also broadened his artistic pursuits. An expert photographer, he mounted his first exhibition while working in the Justice Department in the mid-’80s. He has assembled several other exhibitions in Washington and elsewhere, many featuring sand-swept landscapes and images of mosques from periodic visits he’s made to the Middle East. With the help of an artist referred to him by a Pan Am widow, Gerson even turned some of his images into brooches that were sold at a downtown D.C. jewelry store for several years in the late ’90s.
Gerson knows that his art will have to sustain him through the Pan Am litigation for a while longer. “There is a famous quote, that the wheels of justice grind infinitely slow but infinitely fine,” he says. “Unfortunately, all I’ve seen is that the wheels of justice grind infinitely slow.” —Louis Jacobson