Unless you're in the Navy or have an exceptionally good memory, chances are you don't know who Petty Officer Robert Dean Stethem is.
Let me tell you a very little bit about him. To do so, I have to take you back.
Back, before the beheadings in Iraq; before 9-11; before the attack on the USS Cole; before the attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania; before the Khobar towers bombing; before the first attempt on the World Trade Center; before the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland; before bombings in Germany, Greece, Italy and Austria; and before the hijacking of the Achille Lauro.
And I'll begin at the end of his life, on June 15, 1985.
Stethem, a Navy diver, was returning from an assignment in the Middle East when terrorists hijacked his flight. The members of Hezbollah singled out Stethem because he was an American serviceman.
They bound his arms with an electrical cord and beat him mercilessly. Twenty years ago and again last week, my Express-News colleague Roddy Stinson wrote columns in which he drew upon an Associated Press account of Stethem's torture.
"'I could hear the slapping of the pistol,'" said former hostage William Berry. "'I heard screams as he was hit. There were no words. It was like someone was beating a dog.'"
After hours of this savage treatment, they shot Stethem in the head and dumped his mutilated body on the tarmac at the Beirut airport. Stethem was 23. The Navy awarded him the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
In 1987, German authorities caught one of the hijackers of Stethem's flight. They arrested Mohammed Ali Hamadi at the Frankfurt airport carrying liquid explosives in his luggage.
Germany denied a U.S. request to extradite Hamadi for prosecution. In 1989, a Frankfurt court gave Hamadi a life sentence for Stethem's murder. In Germany, however, a life sentence means prison time of between 20 and 25 years with the possibility of parole after 15 years.
Last week, Hamadi walked out of prison a free man. The German government rebuffed continued American requests for extradition and a personal plea from Attorney General Alberto Gonzales not to release him early. He boarded a flight to the Beirut airport where, after a brief detention, he disappeared.
"Just to see him free slays us," Richard Stethem, the seaman's father, told the Washington Times.
Robert Stethem was not the first American victim of Islamic terrorism. But his murder 20 years ago was surely a sign of things to come. And the German government's decision to set his killer free is a guarantee that in Europe at least past is prologue.
What makes Hamadi's freedom all the more galling is that only days earlier, the execution of Stanley "Tookie" Williams had Europeans lecturing the United States about the supposed superiority of their sense of justice. The cold-blooded killer of four people, Williams was feted in Europe as well as in Hollywood and academia as a Nobel Peace Prize candidate and a children's book author.
It's a curious morality that deplores the death of an American murderer and sanctions the freedom of the murderer of an American. Whatever may be said of Williams' execution, he unlike Hamadi will never kill again.
"What I can assure anybody who's listening, including Mr. Hamadi," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said last week, "is that we will track him down. We will find him. And we will bring him to justice in the United States for what he's done."
For 16 years after the murder of Stethem, that would properly have been considered an idle threat. Today it is not.
I have never forgotten Stethem or the pictures of his boyish face that I saw that summer in 1985. I have never forgotten, and the nation should never forget, what the terrorists did to him or to the other largely nameless American victims of terror.
Nor should we ever forget the weakness and appeasement that sets terrorists free to kill again.