WASHINGTON — In 2010, Stuart and Robbi Force retired — as many do — to Kiawah Island, looking for a change of scenery and a chance to do something new in their “golden years” now that their two children, a son and daughter, were all grown up.
Six years later, they found a calling in the aftermath of unfathomable tragedy: The death of their 28-year-old son, Taylor, at the hands of a Palestinian terrorist during a trip sponsored by Vanderbilt University, where he was attending graduate school.
The circumstance surrounding Taylor Force’s fatal stabbing in Tel Aviv in March of this year led his parents through a run of Google searches, news articles and court opinions on the Palestinian Authority’s reported practice of offering monetary rewards to Palestinians who kill Americans or Israelis.
Finally, on Wednesday, it brought them to Washington, D.C., for the unveiling of legislation named for their son — an Iraq War veteran — and introduced in his honor.
“We are here to let the Force family know their son did not die in vain,” U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said at a press conference to announce the Taylor Force Act, which would compel the secretary of state to confirm the Palestinian Authority is not incentivizing terrorist acts. Without those assurances, the U.S. government’s cash flow to the Palestinian Authority would be stopped.
Stuart and Robbi Force first learned about the payout practice from Sander Gerber, chief executive of a New York City investment firm who also sits on the board of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Gerber reached out to the Forces, sending them materials and offering to help in any way he could.
“Like the American public, we were not educated until something happened, and we started getting bits of information coming in,” said Robbi Force, who with her husband spoke to The Post and Courier on Wednesday morning from a sofa in Graham’s Senate office.
The Forces, who describe themselves as lifelong Republicans who tend to turn the home television to Fox News in the mornings and evenings, knew about Graham in his capacity as their U.S. senator, even following his presidential bid last year. They knew he was knowledgeable about foreign affairs and the conflicts in the Middle East. They didn’t, however, know that around the same time they were learning about the events that led to their son’s death, Graham was learning about Taylor Force. At some point, someone made the connection that the Forces were Graham’s constituents and in a position to be of assistance.
“We retired when our son went to Iraq for his deployment,” said Stuart Force. “We had been looking for something to get involved in. There are all sorts of opportunities in South Carolina to help out and to be involved. We were looking. And this happened. And Sen. Graham took an interest in this and ran with it. And we said, ‘We want to do what we can to focus on this.’”
Stuart and Robbi Force were clear the task of holding the Palestinian Authority accountable had not, and would not, become the all-encompassing centerpiece of their daily lives.
“I don’t want to overestimate that this is us getting up in the morning thinking about what we can do, and going to bed thinking what can we do the next day,” said Stuart Force. “We’re not going to be writing position papers anytime soon. But it does help us focus, rather than just walking around the house looking at the pictures — ‘I remember when we did this. I remember when we did that.’”
Which is not to say they don’t often find themselves growing somber in recalling memories of Taylor, who they said was described by a friend as a “connector,” someone who naturally brought people together, who attended West Point, played guitar and loved country music.
Taylor Force was killed in the ancient Mediterranean port city of Jaffa as Palestinian attackers unleashed a series of shooting and stabbing assaults across the country, media reports from the time said.
A dozen Israelis, civilians and police officers were wounded in the Palestinian knife and gun attacks. Along with the Jaffa attacker, three other Palestinian assailants were shot and killed in the day’s outbreak of violence.
After Taylor Force’s death, they spoke of hearing from an elderly woman who had been a tourist with Taylor for just one day in Prague, and a Vanderbilt classmate who had been a beneficiary of Taylor’s kindness as she underwent treatment for cancer.
“Taylor did more in his 28 years than anybody could have ever accomplished,” said Robbi Force.
“We had—” Stuart Force stopped himself. “We have two good kids. We’re very blessed.”
Though Stuart and Robbi Force were new to the experience of standing up at a congressional press conference flanked by elected officials, they have been the recipients of condolence calls from lawmakers for the past six months.
U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., called the Forces at home in the days that followed (Scott and U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., both met with the couple on Capitol Hill on Wednesday). They were comforted by U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, both Texas Republicans, where the Forces lived for many years. They also received a personal letter from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Sanford said he was moved by the Forces’ resolve to go forward in spite of their loss.
“If something like that happened to one of my boys, I think I would crawl under a rock and that would kind of be it,” Sanford said. “The fact that they are able to say let’s take this tragedy and hopefully make something good of it so, hopefully, other people can avoid the kind of pain that we have endured as a family, is an incredibly brave and courageous thing.”
Graham cautioned that introducing the Taylor Force Act is “the first step in a long journey.” But he was determined to see it through to the finish line.
“I want it to be highlighted. I want this to be a process where we focus on the problem rather than just offering a solution,” said Graham, who emphasized the bill was not introduced in a spirit of animosity toward the Palestinian people but rather in the interest of laying the groundwork, one day, for peace. “I want every member of the body to confront the question that I’m asking.”
Emma Dumain is The Post and Courier’s Washington correspondent.