This morning I have been surprised by the furore triggered by the release of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi- the Libyan convicted of being the mastermind behind the terrorist bombing that brought down Pan Am flight 103 in 1988- Scotland’s worst ever air disaster.
The Scottish minister of Justice, Kenny MacAskill (who had ever heard of him before all this?) made a speech that I thought was rather wonderful (check out earlier post with video footage here.) He managed to be ponderous, prosaic and yet marvelous all at the same time in a way that only certain kinds of Scottish establishment figures can.
His actions have divided opinions across the world- and perhaps particularly across the Atlantic, with key figures from the Obama government expressing their disgust. As Megrahi walked off the plane back onto Libyan soil, the ecstatic hero’s welcome was difficult for all of us to stomach- particularly the waving of Scottish Saltires.
I heard Scottish first minister Alec Salmond being interviewed on radio 4 this morning- the interviewer fatuously asked him how he was going to repair the reputation and standing of Scotland in the world. Salmond replied that the Scottish reputation for the upholding of the rule of law had been enhanced. I think he was right.
But then I am a supporter. I support the release of this man, at the end of his life, who may or may not have been a scapegoat for a particularly shameful stain on the way countries carry out diplomacy in the wake of not one but two planes falling burning from the sky… As superpowers rattled sabres and played out oil driven power games vicariously, with one side backing Iran, and the other (led oh-s0 ironically by the USA) backing Iraq.
Some good friends of mine disagree- and do so for good, reasoned and considered reasons. One of them was a young policeman in 1988 sent to Lockerbie to be part of the clear up operation.
Some people who lost friends and family over Lockerbie also disagree. These voices seem the most important
This from a Guardian article- here.
American Susan Cohen, whose only child, 20-year-old Theodora, was one of 35 students from Syracuse University in New York on the flight, said any suggestion that Megrahi should be freed on compassionate grounds was “vile”.
Speaking from her home in New Jersey, she said: “Any letting out of Megrahi would be a disgrace. It makes me sick, and if there is a compassionate release then I think that is vile.
“It just shows that the power of oil money counts for more than justice. There have been so many attempts to let him off. It has to do with money and power and giving [Libyan ruler Colonel Muammar] Gaddafi what he wants. My feelings, as a victim, apparently count for nothing.”
She added: “This is just horrible. Compassion for him? How about compassion for my beautiful daughter? She deserves compassion, not a mass murderer.”
However, the view from victims relatives this side of the Atlantic seems more mixed…
Dr Jim Swire, who lost his 23-year-old daughter Flora, said it would be to Scotland‘s credit if the Libyan was released. “I am someone who does not believe he is guilty,” he said. “The sooner he is back with his family the better.
“On reasonable human grounds it is the right thing to do and if it’s true that he is to be returned on compassionate grounds then that would be more to Scotland’s credit than returning him under the prisoner transfer agreement.
“It would mean that he can go to his family who he adores and live the last of his days on this planet with them.”
Martin Cadman, who lost his son Bill, aged 32, in the disaster, agreed.
“I hope it is true as it’s something we’ve been wanting for a long time,” he said.
“I think he is innocent and even if he were not innocent I still think it’s certainly the right thing to do on compassionate grounds.”
The issue that I still find myself chewing on is this one- JUSTICE.
What is it, who delivers it, and in cases like this, is it ever entirely credible?
In the UK, we have been seeking after a fair judicial system for a long time. Scotland has perhaps the oldest and most developed system of justice in the western world. It is founded on the premise that Justice should be administered according to the law- separate from the influence of politicians, victims, or other societal interest groups. We might question whether this is possible, but the principle is one worth defending.
As a Christian, I have been very aware that there are two broad ways to understand what the Bible says about justice. One draws heavily on passages from the Old Testament, with its rigid unyielding laws, policed by the threat of judgment and death on those who offend a vengeful and jealous God. This kind of Justice seems to fit well a certain kind of right wing fundamentalist Christianity that has dominated American Politics.
Then there is the Jesus way. The impractical, impossible, even unjust kind of justice- that is based on compassion and love. The kind of justice that came not to destroy the rule of law, but to fulfill its original purpose- to transcend it and outstrip it with something more beautiful. We Agents of the Kingdom of God should be listening for the grace notes of the Spirit that echo at the edges of justice, because that is way that Jesus showed us.
But then, I hear you say, you can not base a criminal justice system on Matthew chapter 5. Turning the other cheek to terrorists? How ridiculous!
But somewhere, the lines of justice seeking and retribution- for chains of violence and oppression that stretch back for generations- somewhere there must me someone who is prepared to turn again from retribution and seek peace and healing. Otherwise we will all be blind and toothless.
It seems to be a surprise to even himself, but perhaps one of these people is Kenny MacAskill.
As a last word, here Richard Holloway had this to say in an interesting piece digging into the J word here…
Faced with a situation like this you can’t go both ways. He (Kenny MacAskill) made the harder decision, and I hope that even those who disagree with it will admire his courage. The whole area of punishment in human life is fraught with difficulty, which is why I’ve always wanted to listen to something the great poet and philosopher Geothe said: “beware of people in whom the sheer urge to punish is strong”. While we do need to punish there is something else in the human heart that should be as strong and that is mercy.