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'Pan Am 103': Parents of one victim tell their tale
The Cohens say they're living 'Hitchcock movie without a happy ending'
(CNN) -- There are some personal tragedies that never reach that counselor-induced state known as "closure." Just ask Susan and Daniel Cohen.
On December 21, 1988, their 20-year-old daughter, Theodora, was one of 270 people killed in the terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.
Since that day over 11 years ago, the Cohens have given themselves over to grief therapy. They have talked to various news outlets until they are blue in the face. They have made a mission to help bring the guilty to justice. They have even written a book about their experiences.
And still, they are bitter and angry.
"A lot of friends say, 'Are you ever going to feel better?'" says Daniel Cohen during a phone interview to promote the book, "Pan Am 103: The Bombing, the Betrayals, and a Bereaved Family's Search for Justice" (New American Library, $21.95). "They want you to, with the best intentions. They want you to find peace or feel better. It's been 11-and-a-half years now and I know myself well enough to know that it's not going to happen."
"Life is lived in a circle," says Susan Cohen. "The dates keep coming back to you. People say, 'Move on.' But that implies a straight road taking you somewhere else. Nothing can take you out of the seasons of the years and the dates that recall your life. And since we were a happy family together, we had many happy days and those days are now sad days."
Summer is traditionally the season for frivolous reading, but New American Library has chosen to publish the Cohens' tragic story this month. "Pan Am 103" is their recounting of the terrorist act that shook the world during the holiday season of 1988.
Its timely release coincides with the ongoing trial in the Netherlands of Al-Amin Khalifa Fahima and Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, the two Libyan suspects in the bombing.
The Cohens, who now live in Cape May County, New Jersey, are professional writers who have collaborated on dozens of books together. They say they received a $60,000 advance for "Pan Am 103," and will get another $15,000 for the paperback follow-up, which will provide information on the trial.
Despite the profit, Susan Cohen wasn't sure she wanted to tackle the subject.
"I had mixed feelings about doing the book," she says. "I knew that though I wanted our story told, I also felt that it would be so horrible to write. It would be anguish. I was was absolutely correct about that. I was writing the last chapter, crying into the computer as I wrote it."
'An absolutely ghastly act of war'
The Cohens are straightforward when asked why they wrote the book.
"It was not written as a personal therapy," says Daniel Cohen. "We are professionals. We have a cause and a point of view and we want to get it out as effectively as we possibly can. It's a personal story, but it was done for reasons that were other than personal."
"It's always been our aim to keep the memory of Pan Am 103 alive in this amnesiac country we live in," says Susan Cohen. "It is an absolutely ghastly act of war and war crime and war against humanity.
"We wanted not only to remind everybody," Susan Cohen continues, "but tell this story from the inside. We are people in a Hitchcock movie without a happy ending. For us, this is what it's like to be on the inside, to try to survive through this horrible loss."
"Pan Am 103" begins with the Cohens reliving the moment their lives took their tragic turn, when the news came that their daughter's flight from Frankfurt, Germany, to New York had crashed in Scotland.
The book is their side of the story as it follows the bombing investigation, the Cohens' breaking of ties with other family members of victims, and the fall of Pan Am into bankruptcy.
It blames the Bush administration for trying to distance itself from the tragedy, even though many have claimed the bombing was an act of war against the U.S. by Libya.
"It's a hugely complex story," says Daniel Cohen. "We're going over 11-and-a-half years, with the personal end to it, with the political end to it, with a legal end to it."
"Pan Am 103" also serves as a collection of memories of Theodora Cohen. Known as Theo to her friends, she was returning on Flight 103 from a semester abroad. A student at Syracuse University, she dreamed of being an actress.
Daniel Cohen remembers his daughter as "tough and often vindictive." In fact, he has one particular memory that still affects him.
The Cohens had just moved to Port Rivers, New York; Theo was nearly 5 years old. Daniel Cohen was sitting in his office, looking out his window when he noticed a group of neighborhood kids surrounding her.
"Many of them were older than her," says Daniel Cohen, "and they were all bigger than she was ... and here's this 4-and-a-half, 5-year-old kid with a stick from a construction site nearby that has a big nail on the end of it. And she's swinging it at them.
"They were teasing her and she was going get back at them. I rush out there and I grab her and do all the good father stuff -- 'Don't do that, you can put somebody's eye out. If they're giving you a hard time, come to me and I'll talk to their parents.'
"But I was really proud of her," he says. "She wasn't going to take anything. And I owe it to that spirit to fight on."
The Cohens are eagerly watching the outcome of the Camp Zeist, Netherlands, trial. Most recently, testimony focused on the prosecution's attempts to connect the type of timer used in the bombing to Libya's secret service.
"The drama is going to come over the summer sometime when they move into the witnesses who connect Megrahi and Fahima to the bomb," says Daniel Cohen. "To connect the guys to the bomb and to connect the bomb to Libyan intelligence, that means talking to double agents and spies and people talking behind screens. That's where they drama comes."
But even in a best-case scenario -- the conviction of the two suspects -- the Cohens can find reasons to be cynical.
"They get life [in prison], and [under Scottish law] life is 20 to 30 years," says Daniel Cohen. "Then the chances of parole or commutation of sentence for political or other reason is very great. I think we all know that.
"That's what happens -- 270 people killed, and I may have the great pleasure of seeing these guys convicted, imprisoned and [yet] I may live long enough to see them come out of prison."
For Daniel and Susan Cohen, there's only one thing that matters in their lives: the fact that their daughter is gone forever.
"Here in America," says Daniel Cohen, "we are an optimistic people and we all like to think it's going to come out well at the end. There's going to be the Hollywood ending. There will be the dearly departed waving at you from the clouds and you'll be marching off into the sunset.
"It doesn't really work that way at all," he says. "We want to feel that, 'Gosh, if that happens to us, we'll be able to get over it.' And our message is, 'No you don't.'"
Pan Am 103 trial could ease U.S.-Libyan relations
Lockerbie Bomb Trial
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