September 23, 2019

Will We Line a Murderer’s Pockets?

The California Supreme Court currently is weighing a challenge to the state’s law that bars felons from selling book and movie rights to profit from their crimes. Nevertheless, while our state’s High Court deliberates, bookstores in Los Angeles may soon be selling the autobiography of a Palestinian Arab murderer who is attempting to benefit from a legal loophole in the hopes of reaping huge royalties from his heinous crime.

In California, our state Supreme Court is considering the case of Barry Keenan, a convicted felon who participated in the 1963 kidnapping and ransom of Frank Sinatra, Jr. In early 1998 a Los Angeles publication published an interview that Keenan had granted them for profit, and they and he thereafter cooperatively sold the movie rights to Columbia Pictures for a film, “Snatching Sinatra,” which further would lend notoriety to the crime. Fortunately, California Civil Code section 2225 forbids convicted felons from reaping such profits. Our state’s law is based on New York’s “Son of Sam” law, enacted to prevent David Berkowitz, a social miscreant, from selling a book and movie rights about his 1977 New York City murder spree, supposedly egged on by the whisperings of his dog. Keenan is challenging California’s parallel law, partly on First Amendment grounds that it is overly inclusive, even though it aims at achieving the compelling state interests of compensating crime victims and deterring their attackers.

Which brings us to Abu Daoud, a murderer-turned-author who has not paid any price to any society for his leadership role in masterminding one of the true “crimes of the century.” Daoud proudly mapped out the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre, which saw Palestinian Arabs invade the serenity of the German Olympic Village and murder several Olympic athletes. Now he has written a book about his exploits and hopes to reap large profits from readers like you.

In his autobiography, which was published in France last year, Daoud admits that he planned the despicable 1972 murders. Twelve innocent athletes were murdered in that infamous attack, including an American citizen, Cleveland’s David Berger, a champion weight lifter. Arcade Publishing, a New York-based publisher, has announced plans to issue in this country an English-translated edition of Daoud’s tale. And every time someone buys a copy of that book, it will put more money in the pockets of a butcher who escaped justice.

The moral issue at play hardly conflicts with our societal commitment to protect speech, especially from prior restraint. For example, because the Olympic massacre was perpetrated in Germany – outside the territorial jurisdiction of American states’ “Son of Sam” laws – Arcade enjoys the technical legality to publish and promote Abu Daoud’s book. Similarly, Daoud is not a convicted felon – no European nation ever dared arrest him. Nevertheless, to employ a metaphor born of Daoud’s life story, no one has put a gun to Arcade’s head to publish the book. After all, there are many books that responsible American publishers choose not to publish, for any number of reasons. Manuscripts that are obscene or offensive or of dubious scholarship routinely are rejected by book publishers. Even this newspaper does not publish every op-ed submission it receives. I know.

In the current context, Daoud’s myth raises a most compelling reason to refrain from promoting such a book: society’s moral imperative to deny a murderer’s plans to make money from his victims’ tragedy. At the same time, our values are challenged frontally: whether we, as members of a civilized society, perceive the moral mandate to send the message that the people of this land do not forget and do not forgive heinous crimes that are unforgettable and unforgivable.

The good news is that this nation always has had a moral backbone firmer and more erect than that of France, and there is a growing chorus of outrage at home over the prospect of Daoud’s book appearing in America’s bookstores. Forty-two members of the United States House of Representatives, a bipartisan coalition of 24 Republicans and 18 Democrats, recently signed a letter initiated by Reps. Steven LaTourette (R-OH) and Jim Saxton (R-N.J.), expressing profound moral concern over the plans to issue the English-language edition of Abu Daoud’s book. In pertinent part, the Congressional representatives wrote that “this known terrorist should not profit from the senseless killing of an American citizen.”

Even more inspiring as an act of moral leadership, two of America’s largest bookstore chains, Borders Books and Crown Books, have announced that their stores nationwide will not stock or sell Daoud’s book. Other booksellers may be expected to follow the leaders. Nevertheless, there will be the strays, and one can only hope that Angelenos will vote with their wallets and their consciences, refraining from lining the pockets of a murderer and his promoters when Daoud’s book

Rabbi Dov Fischer, a member of the national executive committee of the Zionist Organization of America and a board member of the Los Angeles Jewish Federation Council’s Jewish Community Relations Committee, practices complex civil litigation and First Amendment law at the Los Angeles offices of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer, and Feld. He is author of “General Sharon’s War Against Time Magazine,” a study of the libel case brought against the American weekly.