Thursday, August 20, 2009

Big Sign of Compassion: Scotland releases Pan Am 103 bomber to die in Libya

ROCHESTER, N.Y., Aug. 20 — The text messages trickled in as I began my day here, more than 3,000 miles from Lockerbie, Scotland, where Pan Am flight 103 came to rest after blowing up in the skies above on Dec. 21, 1988, killing all 259 people aboard and 11 Lockerbie residents on the ground.

“Scotland’s Justice Secretary orders release of Lockerbie bomber on compassionate grounds,” the message, from a friend in Lockerbie, began.

I read the message a second time, and then a third time, along with the other messages that accompanied it—it’s hard to convey such big news in the 160 characters of a text message.

Eight months ago, I was on the ground in Lockerbie, walking the neighborhoods and fields where pieces of the jumbo jet, the Maid of the Seas, had rained down like fire from the sky 20 years before. I stood solemnly with friends in Dryfesdale Cemetery and the Garden of Remembrance as we remembered the lives lost 20 years before.

I didn’t know anyone aboard the Maid of the Seas or in Lockerbie at the time of the crash. I didn’t know anyone from Lockerbie until I started college at Syracuse University and met a student who was at Syracuse for a year as a Lockerbie-Syracuse Scholar, one of many connections forged between the small Scottish town and the large Central New York university, which lost 35 students aboard flight 103.

Today, as Scotland released convicted bomber Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi and returned him to Libya, the connection between Lockerbie and Syracuse pulses stronger, the connection among all those touched by this terrorist act and other violence and terrorism grows deeper.

I am quite conflicted about the bomber’s release. The man is dying of prostate cancer, and Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill showed remarkable mercy in granting Al Megrahi’s release — mercy that many would not, could not show if facing a similar decision. I don’t know what I would have done had I been in MacAskill’s shoes, but now that it’s done, it is what it is, and I hope it will end in a convicted killer’s quiet reflection with his family before he dies himself and not in raucous celebration in the heart of Libya.

"Our justice system demands that judgment be imposed but compassion available," MacAskill said, according to CNN’s report. Al Megrahi  met the criteria for compassionate release, with only three months to live, and MacAskill, In granting mercy, seems to have followed the rule of law. "Our beliefs dictate that justice be served but mercy be shown."

Mercy to our enemies, to those who have ripped life from the world, taken friends and loved ones before their time, is, some might say, the most challenging kind of compassion to show.

This mercy—Al Megrahi’s release—nonetheless may undermine justice; he was sentenced to life, which under Scottish law meant he was to serve at least 27 years in prison, running from his April 1999 extradition from Libya. See Kirsty Scott, Lockerbie Bomber to Appeal, THE GUARDIAN, June 1, 2004.

Some victims’ families are outraged at the Scottish government’s showing of compassion after Al Megrahi showed none himself for those he killed in planting the flight 103 bomb.

Other victims’ families have suggested the wrong man was convicted and Al Megrahi’s imprisonment was a miscarriage of justice.

Through the years and senseless acts of terrorism, including Pan Am 103, countless families have been deprived the love and lives of their loved ones, and of the chance to say goodbye.

Today, the Scottish government released the bomber not because he is innocent—he is not; the conviction stands, and he dropped his appeal as part of the deal that set him free.

The Scottish government set Al Megrahi free not to right a wrong, but perhaps to prevent another family from having the opportunity to say goodbye to a loved one—regardless of the heinous acts that person committed.

U.S. President Barack Obama said the release was not “appropriate” and that the United States has contacted the Libyan government with the hope that Al Megrahi be placed under house arrest upon his return to Libya.

The mother of one victim described the release to CNN as “misplaced compassion.” Misplaced or not, the release was a remarkable act of compassion, shown toward the individual convicted of the deadliest act of terrorism in UK history.

And that compassion, difficult as it is to accept, let alone understand, is a powerful act of humanity and empathy. The word compassion, its etymology revealed by Google, comes from the Latin “to suffer” or “to suffer with.” See, e.g., Empathy and Compassion, ENCYCLOPEDIA OF DEATH AND DYING. In this release, the Scottish government recognized the suffering of a dying man and his family, and sought to lessen it incrementally, even if that meant redistributing suffering around the world, among his victims’ friends and families. Right or not, it was an act of compassion.

 “Mr. al Megrahi now faces a sentence imposed by a higher power,” MacAskill said, CNN reported. “It is one that no court, in any jurisdiction, in any land, could revoke or overrule. It is terminal, final and irrevocable. He is going to die."

I hope that Al Megrahi will now go home to a quiet reunion with his family before he dies, not a hero’s welcome in the streets of Tripoli, for that would slap compassion in the face.

And I hope that this compassion, justified or not, will foster more compassion and empathy, so that people and governments the world over may better understand one another and value life, despite our vast diversity and differences, and that we may be spared future tragedies of terrorism like the bombing of Pan Am flight 103.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Mr. Flemming;

    "This mercy—Al Megrahi’s release—nonetheless may undermine justice; he was sentenced to life..."

    Fear not. Compassionate release is the legal exception to that. Even now that he's nearly trebled the three-month given time left, well... there are questions about the legitimacy of the prognosis it was based on, but formally it's all legit.

    And if it colors anything for you, there is massive evidence he was innocent all along, or at least reasonable doubt over his true guilt (depending how one cuts the controversies). Please see
    to salve your conscience. The only bad thing about the release is how they used it to kill his second appeal. It's being heard now in the court of public opinion.