A commentary by J. F. Kelly, Jr.
Convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi was released from a Scottish prison where he was supposed to be serving a minimum 27-year term. He was sentenced by a Scottish judge in 2001 for the murder of 270 innocent persons who died in the explosion and crash of a New York-bound U.S. jetliner over the town of Lockerbie, Scotland.
Scotland’s Justice Secretary Kenny Mac Askill released Mr. al-Megrahi, who reportedly has terminal prostate cancer, on “compassionate grounds” after serving less than a third of his minimum sentence. Where, one wonders, is the compassion for the relatives of the victims who included many young Americans en route home for the Christmas holiday season?
Mr. al-Megrahi was flown to Libya where a joyous welcome awaited. Crowds of cheering Libyans waved Lybyan flags and filled the streets of Tripoli. There was little doubt over what they were cheering about. “We all believe he is a hero,” said the editor of a Tripoli newspaper. His release may well inspire other “heroes” to attempt similar deeds.
The United States government had strongly opposed the release of this convicted terrorist. It had urged that he at least be kept under house arrest. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the United States is “deeply disappointed” by this action and President Barack Obama reportedly expressed our government’s disapproval to the United Kingdom. U.S. family members of the victims expressed emotions ranging from outrage to profound sorrow at having to relive their grief.
Mr. al-Megrahi never expressed remorse and steadfastly maintained his innocence. Some British relatives of the victims reportedly believe him and feel that the investigation was flawed. The fact is, however, that he was turned over by the Libyan government to face charges in Scotland. Mr. al-Megrahi, moreover, dropped his second and most recent appeal. And Mr. Mac Askill himself reportedly said that he believes al-Megrahi to be guilty. Nevertheless, said the Justice Secretary, “outrage cannot and should not be a basis of who we are, the values we seek to uphold and the faith and beliefs we seek to live by.”
These are noble and heartwarming sentiments and one hears them often today in the United States from those who believe that we pursue the war on terrorism, if it can still be called a war, with far too much alacrity. Words like these were heard often in the debate on interrogation procedures and the treatment of terrorist detainees. They were prominent in the tortured debate that led to the unwise decision to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, arguably the most modern, comfortable and humane detention facility in the world, as a symbolic concession to the peace-at-any-price crowd.
Americans, like the Scots, are indeed a compassionate people but Americans throughout their history have generally demanded that mass murderers pay for their atrocities with their lives or at least by forfeiting their freedom forever. Mr. al-Megrahi served about eleven and a half days for each of the innocent lives he was convicted of taking. That hardly constitutes a repayment of his debt to society and it is a slap in the face to the still-grieving families of the victims. But it does provide a couple of lessons that we should bear in mind. First, justice systems and values differ widely, even among western countries. We should be very skeptical, therefore, about subjecting ourselves to the jurisdiction of international courts and some aspects of international law. Second, criminal justice systems in general simply aren’t up to the job of dealing with terrorists, not, at least if we want to deter them or keep them off the streets.
In real wars, compassion can get in the way of victory and it can also get people killed. If we are still serious about the war on terrorism, we eventually have to get over this notion that terrorists are just criminals to be dealt with by criminal justice systems. As we saw in the Lockerbie bomber case, they just may not have the stomach for it.
Copyright 2009 by J. F. Kelly, Jr.