Saturday, August 22, 2009

Big Sign that Libya doesn’t understand compassion or suffering, or that it understands and doesn’t care: An inappropriate hero’s welcome

ROCHESTER, N.Y., Aug. 22 — After I got the news of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi’s release on compassionate grounds, I tried to accept it for what it was, or purported to be—a showing of compassion—whether I agreed with it or not.

I was and am conflicted by the release, as I noted Thursday. Compassion to end the suffering of one man and his family, yes. But such compassion at the expense of increasing the suffering of the relatives of his hundreds of victims?

Hoping for the best—for lightness from the dark, I saw the move initially and optimistically as a way forward from tragedy; a Scottish acknowledgement that while Al Megrahi is a horrific, convicted murderer, he is nonetheless human, ostensibly with a family who have not themselves been convicted of such atrocities, and who want to say goodbye in person and at home before he dies. An acknowledgment that while Al Megrahi ripped precious lives from the earth and brought unspeakable grief to countless friends and relatives, Scotland would not continue the cycle of suffering.

While I hoped for the best, a text message from my longtime friend in Lockerbie brought back the harsh reality of the criminal case—one for which Libya refused for years to extradite Al Megrahi. He has always maintained his innocence, and Libya, while paying billions of dollars to the victims’ families, has denied culpability for the bombing of Pan Am flight 103.

The text message shook me from a hopeful fog of peacebuilding and reconciliation: “I fear he will get a hero’s welcome in Tripoli,” my Scottish friend wrote.

A punch to the gut. “Would they dare?” I naively asked myself.

Sadly, they did, despite British and U.S. efforts to discourage a hero’s welcome.

I was sick when I saw the crowds gathered, flags waving at the airport, greeting the bomber as he exited Libyan dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi’s plane, in a neatly tailored suit—quite a contrast from his covered face and track suit as he boarded hours earlier.

Libya, Gaddafi, and the bomber clearly missed the boat on the compassionate release. It was inevitable that compassion to decrease suffering of one terrorist and his family would increase the suffering of his victims, dredging up grief and anger that never disappeared but that has perhaps not been so strong for many years as it is this week.

Libya could have tempered that suffering by making the homecoming a quiet one, not a hero’s welcome, and Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill could have, as a condition of the release, ostensibly demanded that Libya prevent a hero’s welcome. (Enforcing such a condition would, of course, have been another challenge in itself.)

The hero’s welcome, and the U.S. & UK failures to prevent it, taints the Scottish act of compassion (which surely would have angered some regardless of the bomber’s reception, and which still troubles me).

The hero’s welcome reminds me that an act of humanity and healing is not necessarily sufficient to overcome a dictator’s arrogance and a terrorist’s inhumanity, as much as we might wish it is. Someday, I hope it will be enough, but this week, it was not.

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