A country's heroes are a reflection of its people's values. So what does it say that Lebanon gave a hero's welcome to Samir Kuntar this week? Kuntar has been in an Israeli prison since 1979 and was released in exchange for the return of the bodies of two dead Israeli soldiers who had been kidnapped by Hezbollah in 2006, leading to Israel's incursion into Lebanon. He's not a household name in the United States, far less famous than the terrorist who led the group in which Kuntar operated, Abu Abbas, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. But Kuntar's crimes are worth recalling.
On April 22, 1979, Kuntar, then 16 years old, came ashore with three other terrorists near Nahariya, a beach resort along Israel's Mediterranean coast. They quickly made their way to a nearby apartment building, killing a policeman on the way. Once inside the building, they went apartment to apartment searching for Israelis to murder. They weren't picky. Their victims didn't have to be soldiers or even adult males. When they reached Danny Haran's apartment, they found their target.
Danny's wife, a neighbor, and the couple's younger daughter managed to hide in a crawl space in the bedroom, but Danny and their older daughter, Einat, weren't so lucky. Kuntar and his associates took the two to the beach, where, according to eyewitnesses, Kuntar forced Einat to watch as they killed her father. Kuntar then took his rifle butt and smashed the 4-year-old's skull on a rock, killing her.
But Danny and Einat weren't the only victims of Kuntar's barbarism. Back in the apartment, Danny's wife, Smadar, discovered that her efforts to keep her 2-year-old, Yael, quiet while Kuntar and his men searched the apartment had tragic results. She wrote about her ordeal in 2003 in the Washington Post, shortly after Abu Abbas was captured in Iraq.
"I knew that if Yael cried out, the terrorists would toss a grenade into the crawl space and we would be killed. So I kept my hand over her mouth, hoping she could breathe. As I lay there, I remembered my mother telling me how she had hidden from the Nazis during the Holocaust. 'This is just like what happened to my mother,' I thought," Smadar wrote.
By the time Smadar was rescued hours later, she discovered that her daughter Yael, too, was dead: "In trying to save all our lives, I had smothered her."
But you would never know any of this judging from the way Kuntar was welcomed home. Lebanese President Michel Suleiman and Prime Minister Fouad Siniora greeted Kuntar at the airport, with Suleiman calling him and four others released by Israel "the freed heroes." When the men arrived later at a border town in southern Lebanon, hundreds thronged the streets strewing flowers and shouting praise.
Could it be that Kuntar is a changed man? That he somehow regrets what he did that horrible night nearly 30 years ago? Lest anyone think so, Kuntar left no doubt about his own intentions: to kill again -- and be killed as a martyr to his cause.
Dressed in military fatigues, Kuntar wasted no time making a public statement when he visited the burial site of another terrorist, Imad Mughniyeh, killed in a car bomb in neighboring Syria. "We swear to God ... to continue on your same path and not to retreat until we achieve the same stature that Allah bestowed on you," Kuntar promised. "This is our great wish. We envy you and we will achieve it, God willing," he said.
Just a few short years ago after the assassination of former premier Rafik Hariri in 2005, it seemed Lebanon was on the verge of a democratic rebirth. Millions took to the streets to demand Syria, which had occupied the country for 30 years, withdraw its troops -- which it did. Lebanon held its first relatively free elections a few months later. But this week's public adulation of a stone-cold killer dashes any hope that Lebanon has abandoned its culture of violence.