Forty years ago this week, my father was taken hostage when the Hanafi Muslims, a breakaway sect from the Nation of Islam, took over the District Building, the Islamic Center and the B’nai B’rith headquarters in Washington D.C. As the 56-year-old public relations director for B’nai B’rith, a Jewish service organization, my father was selected by the Hanafi sect’s leader as one of eight older men who would be the first killed if police stormed the building. A young radio reporter was killed at the District Building and a D.C. protective services officer fatally wounded. There were others harmed as well, largely in the initial moments of the siege.
Eventually, through the brave intercession of the ambassadors from Egypt, Pakistan and Iran who negotiated by citing the Koran to the Hanafis, all of the hostages were released. My father emerged from his offices and embraced his family after 38 hours, his shirt streaked with the blood of a younger worker who had been cut during the initial takeover. As a 16-year-old high school student, it is an image and moment I will never forget.
What I will also remember is my father’s reflective, thoughtful forgiveness of Hamaas Abdul Khaalis and his followers. We lived only a couple miles from the 16th Street home where six of Khaalis’ followers, including his family, had been murdered in apparent retaliation for the sect’s breakaway from the Nation of Islam. Clearly, the man’s grief and rage had overwhelmed and unhinged him.
And while my father understood that the men who had terrorized Washington required prosecution and punishment, he showed me colors in the aftermath of the siege that made me proud. His encounters with his captors had convinced him that some were reluctant actors in the insane, purposeless drama. One in particular, wearing a knitted cap, was noticeably concerned about the treatment of hostages and had been solicitous at all points. Testifying at the trial, my father hoped that one of the lawyers would ask him a question allowing him the opportunity to make the distinction on behalf of this defendant. None did.
In the days after his release my father serviced all the media inquiries of reporters, but also found enough time to pen the following essay that ran on the op-page of the March 15, 1977 New York Times. I remember him banging it out, on his manual Royal typewriter, late at night in his basement office. Clean copy. On deadline.
* * *
I thought I was going to die and throughout those 38 hours my mind was a jumble of visions in which I’m telling my wife Dorothy and the family of how I kept thinking I was going to die. That doesn’t make sense — or does it? Is hope really stronger than fear? Is it that you’re not alone, that there is comfort in the nearness of more than 100 other anguish captives sharing an imposed camaraderie? Shock. It numbs the emotions, insulating you from the worst of your fears. It keeps your sanity intact while, your hands bound, you are squirming from flat on your back to flat on your belly, inching for a more comfortable resting place on the hard cement floor.
For some 38 hours the discipline is an ominous silence. “Keep your mouth shut or get killed!” is a precise order. You exist in an eerie quiet, except when the guards, fondling their weapons, bark commands or shout threats or obscenities. Or when the one they call the Khalifa — their leader Khaalis — enters the room to deliver one of his tirades, and then your mind begs for silence. It is the sound of a colleague asking to go to the lavatory or to have his wrenching bonds eased or an occasional whisper from a body alongside you. Otherwise you lie there with your disconnected thoughts . . .
The first hours. They’ve moved you away from beside young Alton with the deep knife wound in his back? Why him? Because he is black? A jacket and handkerchief is all you could offer your secretary to help stauch his blood. Now, your hands are bound behind your back with your tie. The one your daughter-in-law had given you along with the promise of a grandchild in July. It’s not fair to have to die before meeting your first grandchild. Or what? What do these gunmen want? Keep your wits. Make mental notes of what’s happening. You’re the B’nai B’rith information officer. The media people will want the details later. But my glasses are slipping from my face. Oh no? A gunman lifts them and tosses them into a refuse can. Speak up. “I can’t see without them.” He retrieves them and fits them on my face. Is this the way assassins act? What the hell do they want . . .
The Khalifa’s first appearance. His voice is angry and frightening. He sounds incoherent, irrational. Maybe I’m missing some words because of this useless deaf left ear. Who needs to hear? Deafness can be a blessing. The slaying of his wife and children. Oh, God. I rmember the sick feeling in my gut reading how the children were drowned in bathtubs. Why is he blaming “Yahudis?” This is absurd. Jews — everyone — felt for him. Hanafi. That house on 16th Street, of course. I drive past it each morning. Two of our captors — I remember seeing them patrolling the grounds, with some kind of sword, wondering how they must live with such fear. The Khalifa is bitter and bloodcurdling, threatening to put hostages to the sword, the older men first. This can’t be for real, can it? Arabian Nights. Hanafi — aren’t they a nonviolent sect? This is crazy.
What is this? The guard is unbinding me. And seven others. We’re the “old men!” A gunman had called me that when he ordered me to paint windows. This is ridiculous. There are still older men tied up. The first thing I’ll tell Dorothy when I see her is: “Imagine, 56 years old and they call me an old man!” My wrists are numb. Thank God the bonds were removed. Decapitation? Oh God! It can’t be? What do I do? The Khalifa wants a telephone. Relax. They won’t behead us without him present. Will they? . . .
* * *
Do we die without resistance? But how can we resist? If they mean to massacre us, why are they so meticulous about our bathroom needs? They stabbed Alton Kirkland in a moment of frenzy, then released him on a stretcher. They’ve tried to do something for the diabetics and heart cases. Ask for water and you get it. They allow medication. The women are treated courteously. They abused Eddie the painter inhumanly. Gutsy Eddie. He never whimpered. Then they eased up on him and praised his courage. Are they fanatics? Some don’t look the part. How do fanatics look? Why won’t they tell us their demands? The rule is, the longer things go on the better the chances to survive. Isn’t that the rule. I’ve learned that I don’t fear death. But, please, let it be quick, with a bullet. I want to live. So this is what the holocaust was like! Hannah Arendt, you don’t know what you were talking about! . . .
It’s taking so long. This must be a political thing. A Middle East thing, with Rabin in town. Are they demanding that Israel release Arab terrorists? I’ve always agreed with the Israeli policy against giving in to terrorists. It’s U.S. policy too. Do I still have those convictions? Logically, yes. But, please, somebody do something . . .
“Sid, how does it feel to be called an ‘old man’?” Sid grins. I say. “Our families must be terror-stricken, worse off than we are.” Joe whispers his wife’s name and rolls his eyes upward. He is more concerned with her than with himself. Joe is the oldest. He is supposed to retire next month. I hear: “Bernie, what the hell are you doing here? You should be downstairs figuring the pre-retirement death benefits.” That’s right. I can’t die. I’m the plan administrator. It’ll take the actuary two years to backtrack and straighten out all the death claims. Dorothy and the kids will have enough to get by. How will my 82-year-old mother take it? The fellow from accounting is really hurting. I grin at Sid’s efforts to cheer him: “You’re gonna go nuts when you’re out of here figuring out everyone’s overtime!”…
Maybe I should pray. I believe in prayer. Do I believe in petitional prayer? I grope for words and phrases. Never mind. God hears my thoughts. Doesn’t he? . . .
Night. Bone-weary. Shivering cold. Blessed catnaps. Guilt feelings. Unlike most of the others, I’m unbound and can stretch my arms and shift my body.
Daydreams and fantasies: This ends the nonsenses of Jews fighting Jews over Breira . . . Jabbar is hitting those beautiful skyhooks and President Carter is talking to him about appealing to the Hanafis in the 16th Street house he bought for them . . . Teddy Kollek will be angry. It’s taken too long to finish the Jerusalem Gardens project. Now they’ll make it a memorial to us; it will help the campaign . . . The insurance company has a whole crew in the building passing out death-benefit checks to the wives . . . This has to end by Sunday; I have to be at my daughter Linda’s art show at Catholic U . . . Entebbe raiders . . . I’m choking. Tear gas . . . police . . . shooting their way in through windows. All dreams.
Thursday morning. The “old men’s” job of feeding the tied-up men doughnuts and coffee is a blessed chore. I can move around. Everyone I’m feeding — their eyes are filled with hurt and fright and friendship. Many non-Jews, many blacks. Everyone is wonderful! No one has pleaded he’s not a Jew and doesn’t belong here. Not one! This is family, the human family. What do they say: Adversity brings out the best or the worst in people? These people are the best. “Don’t worry, you’ll be all right.” He’s a Christian. I hope they let him go. Surely, they’ll let the women go . . .
The gunman with the knitted cap is guarding us. Pleasant looking fellow, quiet-spoken, civil. He seems the best of the lot. How many are there? I count seven. Knitted Cap hasn’t been abusive. What is he doing here? He doesn’t want to die, does he? For what purpose? He looks like he’s role-playing. I empathize with him. Is that wrong? . . .
What are their demands? Why won’t they tell us? It can’t just be the complaint the gunman read to us about some movie. Too silly! What is it? Does the Khalifa want the imprisoned killers of his wife and children? He shouts about retribution. If it’s that, we’re in a pickle. A gherkin. I don’t like gherkins. The authorities can’t give in to that demand. The way we’re barricaded, rescuers can’t reach us without a bloodbath. The terrorists can’t leave . . .
* * *
Food arrives for dinner. They’re binding us hand and foot. All of us. I like being treated like the others. Hands in front now, not too painful. Binding us in a security measure. Something is happening, some sort of rescue attempt. They don’t want a massacre, negotiations must be going on. Some of us — maybe the “old men” — will be in a plane heading for Libya or Entebbe.
“I’ll take corned beef.” A mistake. It’s on white bread, not rye. No mustard but mayonnaise. This for a Jewish boy? Sid smiles: “My mistake too. A travesty.” Meal time is activity, easing the tensions. Besides, something is going to happen soon. It’s in the air.
My turn for the bathroom. I signal but the two gunmen on guard ignore me. “Lie down. Face down!” is the curt order. I do as I’m told, cover my head with my hands and left my knees to make a smaller target if there’s a shoot-out. The gunmen have slipped out of the room, the first time we’ve been left unguarded.
“Stay where you are! Keep your head down! Keep still!” The orders are the same but the voices sound different. And there are many more voices. I peek a look. The follow with the gun standing over me has a Metropolitan Police patch on his arm. A beautiful sight . . .
People keep saying: “I’ve now begun a new life.” Not so. It’s the same one. But different.
* * *
Bernard Simon is the public relations director of B’nai B’rith.
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OMG, I have a lot on the 3 different eras that encompass this event! It is such a riveting story and I believe you could really tell it. I met you and your wife in Baltimore when I tried to buy you a desert in secret and the waitress turned us in like asylum seekers at a US border. I never mentioned it because I didnt know your connection. A coupled of months ago , I read somewhere that you went to BCC and I finally looked up your wiki. As a true fan I never needed to, but there it was you were from Montgomery County not Baltimore as I always thought.I saw your father worked and B’Nei and I thought damn it you should have said something.The backstory has everyone from Malcolm X to Kareem Abdul Jabar and the fist African American family in the witness protection. This story kept coming back in my life.I went to school one block over from the synagogues facing each other on 16th street and of course the house on the corner is where it all happened. It was always spoken in hush tones. Later I worked for a record company in Philly and my boss was thr kid of the guy so ran the Philly mosque. I wish I could tell you more but this is public and I have already blanketed so much.
It’s good, it makes me sympathize with the captors for a second but still they’re shedding blood over politics. I hate the captors, even though I don’t necessarily blame them. They’re stupid people and stupid people become nazis if you give them half a chance, no matter their lofty righteous goal. It’s good the knitted cap didn’t get half a chance to explain his position in court, because it’s an indefensible one. Some one has to step up – and knitted cap didn’t.
“One in particular, wearing a knitted cap, was noticeably concerned about the treatment of hostages and had been solicitous at all points”
I believe this is suppose to highlight the humanity of the captors and fill one with a ray of hope, however it should fill one with despair. Instead of showing goodness it shows how the duties, loyalties and comradeship with his fellow Muslims override his compassion for outsiders and he was only willing to bend those those so far. Ultimately those social constraints will always hold more sway.
I can see where you get such far-reaching ability to “stay within the skin” of others while still registering your own emotions and needs.
Insightful read into a parental personality who clearly had the ability to articulate his humanity without shame, guilt or… un-complexity. My parents did their best to provide the same example for me.
So God bless.
As a fellow Bethesdan (WJ 1978), I remember this so well. The crazy incoherent demands, Karem negotiating for the release of the hostages. What didn’t what was going on a mile or two from my home. The tension and fear in the Casa de Simon must have been unbearable. Thank you for sharing your dad’s story.
Your dad is a great writer. I see where you get it. I l ove his sense of humor. “Hannah Arendt, you don’t know what you are talking about!”
I don’t get updates on your posts anymore, so I miss things. Glad I saw this one.
Hello David. Long time no talk. I trust you’ve been well…being but a stone’s throw away from the eye of a very, very noisy hurricane for the last two years or so.
I have but a single question. But as usual you might potentially find it a bit too personal. If so, once again, I apologize in advance for taking a bit too much liberty in these exchanges. So, my question is this: In the aftermath of such an extraordinarily traumatic, life-or-death event, did you notice any overall lasting subtle (or not-so-subtle) changes in your father’s approach to things after that?
Thanks for that flashback. I am glad to know this piece of your backstory also.
I was 24 and had just moved to Washington in January. I remember how confusing it was trying to understand who the gunmen were and what they wanted. Our only source of news was the radio in the mailroom of the 15th Street offices of Haskins and Sells where I worked. I was aware of what had happened on 16th Street, but did not understand how that had anything to do with B’Nai B’rith or the District Building. One of those wounded was Marion Berry, then a member of the City Council.
The incident was all anyone was talking about and it paralyzed the city. It took most people deep into the night to get home.
There is a hopeful part of this story that no one wants to acknowledge today. The majority of Muslims are much more like knit cap than they are the people doing real beheadings – and even worse atrocities today. But like him they are trapped and victims and prisoners of the madness that has taken over their lives and destroyed their countries.
There has to be an alternative to violence. Perhaps it is that we all start listening to each other and particularly thoughtful people like your father.
Typos: “bpund” and “fedding”
Thank you for sharing your dad’s story. Beautiful.
David, Bob Wisdom forwarded me this. I remember this coming up in conversation some years before, I never knew the details. He was quite a writer, he put you in the moment. Thanks for sharing this story it is apt for the moment within which we live in America. Your Pop was a mensch …
Beautifully written out of an ugly event. Apples, trees. Blessings on his memory.