19th August 2010
Within the rumbling saga of Al Megrahi’s release, it is difficult to maintain a sense of context. The feat of the media to continually splurge sensationalist opinion on the matter has turned an important question of morality – of compassion and justice – into a series of political headlines. From Obama, Cameron and U.S. Senators, to Salmond, MacAskill and Jack Straw, there has been a war of words and personas. One year on from what was undoubtedly a controversial social moment; Al Megrahi’s release deserves a far better critique than the narrow politicised version played out between cameras, careerists and commentators. Consider what an act of compassion means for Scotland, 2010 and the future.
Megrahi’s case directly concerned the 270 deaths as a result of the bombing of Pan Am 103, the 270 counts of murder that Megrahi was convicted of. His release also concerned his own impending death as a result of terminal prostate cancer. There were questions over his original conviction and whether the influence of foreign Governments or BP’s desert dealings with Libya, held influence. Lastly, there was MacAskill’s decision- the walking of a type-rope between compassion and vengeance. The decision concerned life and death; innocence and guilt; mercy and violence. It also went far beyond Magrahi as a man.
Terrorism, Magrahi’s offence, is symbolic of our age. Terror, and the unabating war upon it, is the ultimate fear. It was an international event linking American politics with our own, aired tensions with the Libyan and Iranian Governments and engulfed the Scottish legal system within Britain’s worst terrorist act. Lockerbie now transcends Magrahi.
Therefore, when Kenny MacAskill faced this moral type-rope, he was dealing not only with Magrahi’s fate, but providing a verdict on the most controversial of international affairs. He did so as Scotland’s Justice Secretary. It was a rare moment for a Scottish judgment in relation to world terror. 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq: the only Scottish input was Gordon Brown’s compliance to the response.
MacAskill’s religious deliverance on Magrahi was strikingly different: “Mr Al Megrahi now faces a sentence imposed by a higher power”, he said. Since the 20th of August 2009, his decision has received criticism – which is understandable from the families involved. This was a man convicted of terror and mass murder – a “heinous crime” in MacAskill’s words. And such a man was set free to enjoy the life and world he took from others; a terrorist granted tolerance and compassion.
This is difficult. Yet compassion is part of Scottish justice. The majority of compassionate release cases are accepted. For anyone to spend their dying months – however long they have left – with their family is a sign of genuine compassion. It is what we would wish for ourselves and our family members. To prevent this would be vindictive, to see his past guilt as too great to grant any dying reprieve. What greater challenge to our values can there be than the case of Megrahi, when the scale of anger and condemnation was greatest? If we are willing to change the culture of our justice system in tough conditions it is no system of justice at all. Our justice is to uphold a higher standard of justice than of those we imprison; to show mercy to the weakest of men, the most hated, is the greatest sign of moral strength: that is our culture. Indeed perhaps the reason for such outcry across the water is down to a certain culture, a moral mistranslation than is lost across the Atlantic, where murder is often met with murder.
Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien rightly described American society – where over 1000 state executions have taken place in the last 35 years – as having a “culture of vengeance”. However credible the calls for Kenneth McAskill to explain his decision, what is in greater need of justification is the international climate of war, violence and conflict which relates the U.S., the U.K., Libya and Iran in the first place. The Afghan and Iraq invasions, as well as Iranian responses in the Middle East are utterly vengeful. Within this environment, acts of compassion by any Government have been rare. MacAskill’s decision stood contrary to all such fears generated since 9/11.
The responsibly for these crimes can often be traced to previous events, a cycle of violence that is rarely outside the realms of Government. Lockerbie, like most terrorist violence, did not take place within a vacuum. It was not the action of a single, evil man. Evidence linked the event to the Libyan and Iranian Governments. Media reports in the past year strain to highlight new anger towards MacAskill, yet they fail to document the long series of atrocities that pre-dated and are linked to Lockerbie. The American military’s destruction of Iran Air Flight 655 in the previous July – resulting in the death of 290 passengers – is left unmentioned; nor is the timing of Lockerbie – a year on from the Iran-Iraq war, where billions of American dollars were spent on supporting Suddam Hussein’s regime. The link to Iran is part of a cycle of violence, one of vengeance and retribution.
Out with this context, it is easy to classify such actions as those of the evil, the dirty foreign nations who despise freedom and all our holy Western values. It is simple to join the media narrative and the phrases of Presidential speeches that attack the actions of others from a moral plateau, with the effortless assumption that we can hold no blame. What is challenging is to take a position of criticism, separate from flag and country, and simply ask ‘How did this begin?’, ‘How does this end?’
If America says Al Quieda only understands violence; and Islamic Jihadists say the same about Israel and the U.S., when do the bombs stop falling or the attacks end? Those killed by bombing in Afghanistan – be they of Coalition, Taliban or Iranian origin – all feel the same anger and hatred and desire for retribution. The Taliban and Bin Ladin, who the American Government funded and armed against the Russians, became a threat in themselves. 9/11 was the collateral damage of the Cold War. The Coalition in Afghanistan represents the fourth invasion by British soldiers in the past 170 years. The fourth. Will there be a fifth?
It seems like a strategy that is helpless and endless. The idea that force, if sustained for long enough, creates an explosion of security and peace, is unfounded. Eventually conflict ends in failure or political compromise – in a consensus based upon compassion.
Consider Northern Ireland or South Africa. There was a choice: to fuel the same conflict, to extend the joint suffering or to compromise; to abandon the pretence of offense and defense and create a lasting solution. For Republicans and Unionists to meet was the most challenging of political decisions for Northern Ireland; to allow amnesty to perpetrators of apartheid was a huge social challenge to South Africa; and while many question whether negotiations with the Taliban can ever take place – but they have already begun. Like in Lockerbie, these cases were emotive struggles which destroyed families and communities, yet a decision of compassion is poignant when compared to the acts of vengeance which preceded it. These reconciliations said far more for each nations’ collective future than the years of division and blame.
That is not to say that MacAskill’s compassion holds the answer to the world’s problems. Magrahi was one, dying man. Terrorism and conflict across the world is a different danger. However, if Scotland’s message is one of reconciliation, then I join with Nelson Mandela and not Washington’s NeoCons in welcoming that.
Yet there still is anger over Lockerbie. It seems strange in a world of such violence that we save strong condemnation for an act which sets a man free. He is still alive, yes. He showed victims no compassion and their families never shared final moments together, that is true. Yet if we wish to find solutions to violent problems in the coming years, the answers shall not be found in vengeance and retribution. Watching saltires flutter in the wind upon Magrahi’s return was difficult; yet, one year on, I’d rather it flew beside an act of mercy than any act of aggression.