Lockerbie bomber was sent home and received a hero’s welcome.
Reaction in the US to this–both to the fact of the early release, and now to the scenes in Tripoli–is a mixture of astonishment, incomprehension, and disgust. Nobody seems able to accept what has happened at face value. It must be some sordid deal about oil between the US, Scottish and UK governments, surely. Or do they know he’s really innocent, as some of the victims’ relatives believe? Is that what’s going on? Nobody can accept or even understand the “compassionate release” rationale as laid out by Kenny MacAskill. A convicted mass murderer, found guilty of this most appalling atrocity, is set free as an act of mercy? Have these people gone quite mad? It seems to me a very fair question.
MacAskill, interviewed on US television, radiated the most repellent sanctimony I have ever seen in a politician–and that is saying something. His manner suggested that the whole thing is more about his own implacable self-righteousness than the demands of justice. He was followed on air by victims of the relatives. They were restrained and dignified, but plainly dismayed and distraught, and feeling horribly betrayed. Does the exercise of compassion not also take into account compassion for the victims and their families, one wondered? No, he seemed to argue, for that would be to choose vengeance not justice. False. There is such a thing as just punishment. How could it be unjust for a man guilty of a crime like this to die in prison? I would advise MacAskill not to visit the US for the foreseeable future. Indeed, calculations of justice aside, I wonder if the Scottish government has the smallest inkling of the harm it has done to its standing in the US–not to mention the prospects of future co-operation on security–with this bizarre act.
I found myself on the phone last night trying to explain the decision to release Lockerbie terrorist Abdel Baset al-Megrahi so he could go home to Libya to die of cancer. The rationales didn’t sound convincing even to me, and I’m pretty liberal on imprisonment. I was forced to say, lamely, “Well, the British and the Scottish don’t think about crime the way we do.”
Just how “terminally ill” is that guy? He should be on a stretcher and have tubes attached if there was any reason for Scotland to show mercy on on the man who blew up 270 human beings. He doesn’t look anywhere near close enough to dying. What kind of death panel decided he was dying?
Nonetheless, on balance, I thought MacAskill’s justification of his decision to release Megrahi so that he may die at home and in the company of his family, was about as good as could have been expected given both the circumstances and the man making the decision. The easy decision – certainly the one that Jack Straw would have made had it been his responsibility – would have been to insist that Megrahi die in prison. Deciding otherwise automatically opens MacAskill to accusations of grandstanding and political posturing.
Unsurprisingly, then, reaction to MacAskill’s decision has split along partisan grounds: SNP supporters think he did well; those most hostil to the nationalists -such as Brother Nelson – are appalled.
My own preference would have been for Megrahi’s appeal to continue, no matter how embarrassing that might have proved. Contra Fraser, there is some reason to suppose that Megrahi’s conviction is unsafe. Not all the questions raised by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission have been answered.
That leaves us in an unsatisfactory position. Megrahi and, more widely, Libya may well be guilty. Whether the evidence is sufficient to support a Guilty rather than a Not Proven verdict in court is a different matter. To further complicate matters, few people believe that Megrahi, even if he did put the bomb on the plane, was the man behind the plot to destroy Pan-Am 103. Consequently and in one sense, Megrahi is a symbolic prisoner. That this is so, I think, undermines the case for insisting that he die in Greenock Prison.
Freddie at The League:
It seems to me that one of the chief reasons that a life sentence is such a terrible punishment is not only that you must spend your life in prison, but that you must spend your death there, as well. In the moment that we would all like to take place with a modicum of dignity, and in what must be the most profoundly personal and rightfully lonely of one’s existence, to endure it with all the indignity, lack of control and worst of all, lack of privacy that prison ensures, is a punishment in and of itself, a sentence not of death but in death. It’s something I would never want to contemplate; it seems to me a truly terrible thing. But civil society must have terrible punishments for terrible crimes, and the horrific and intentional murder of dozens of innocents in the commission of terrorism most certainly fits the bill.
James Joyner in The New Atlanticist:
The decision, of course, is rightly with the UK. They, not the United States, have the jurisdiction here and, while our government has every right to express its wishes, they have the right to carry out the policy they think best. Certainly, al-Megrahi would have been allowed to rot in prison were he in American custody; indeed, he may well have been executed for his crimes. Despite our common law origins, there is quite a bit of divergence in the criminal justice cultures of the two countries and, indeed, within the Western democracies generally.
This is not the finest day in the history of US-UK relations. But the strain will smooth over quickly enough given the number of pressing issues confronting us in the world.
I believe that there is an element of mercy lacking in the justice system in the U.S., especially in Texas where revenge is the only emotion allowed to be part of the process. But actions like the one today in Scotland — realeasing a murderer of 270 people — do nothing to help Americans embrace the concept of “compassionate release” over here.
We were recently visted by a British barrister working on a death row case here involving a British citizen. He admitted that the U.S. is seen by many in the world as behind the times on modern ideals of justice, mostly because of the death penalty, but not entirely. Whereas the EU can pressure developing countries to embrace higher standards — like not executing the mentally ill and not electing judges — they really can’t do that to the U.S. All they can do is appeal to our better judgment.
But today’s decision is apalling, even to me, someone who opposes the death penalty. A man responsible for the deaths of 270 people should serve his entire sentence. Ghadaffi has been fighting for his release for years, long before he was diagnosed with cancer.
If Scottish officials have no stomach for harsh sentences, then they have no credibility in their criticism of American justice. We don’t let monsters out of their cage when they begin their natural decline toward death. We treat them humanely and with dignity — and if it’s their time to go, we let them die where their own actions put them: in prison.
Not one of those 270 people who died in Lockerbie was given even a second to prepare for death on their own terms.
UPDATE: Kevin Drum
Will at The League:
I confess I’m rather baffled by Alex Massie’s sympathetic take on the Lockerbie Bomber’s release. As I understand it, this is a man duly convicted of murdering hundreds of innocent airline passengers. Through his involvement, al-Megrahi forfeited any claims on our compassion above certain minimal standards of humane treatment.
Massie suggests that these proceedings are complicated by several other factors: Scotland’s desire to appear assertive and independent on an international stage; al-Megrahi’s deteriorating health, and the questionable circumstances surrounding his conviction and and government’s investigation of the Lockerbie bombing. But these are hardly reasons to release a convicted killer, particularly when there are other, well-established mechanisms for addressing his concerns.
Sonny Bunch at Doublethink:
Freddie writes “You can count me among those who, in regards to the Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi situation, think a life sentence means just that– you spend the rest of your life in prison, and it doesn’t matter if you’re going to die of old age or of bowel cancer or whatever else. You’ve been condemned to live and die in prison.” Now, this is all well and good, but we have to consider the following: There is no such thing as “life without parole.” As long as you’re still alive there’s always the chance that some idiot will pardon or parole you because you’re “rehabilitated” or “old and dying” or some other bull**** excuse.
You know what solves that problem? Removing the “as long as you’re still alive” part of the equation. I don’t really think that the death penalty serves as a deterrent (and I certainly don’t in cases of international terrorism). But I do think it keeps travesties like this from happening.
Will responds to Bunch:
That said, I think Sonny Bunch’s defense of the death penalty is pretty unpersuasive in this context. The answer to al-Megrahi’s release is not to execute more prisoners, but to ensure that people convicted of life imprisonment actually stay in prison for life (absent some exculpatory evidence, obviously). al-Megrahi’s release is pretty extraordinary; wrongful convictions are unfortunately less so.
David Frum at New Majority
UPDATE #3: Marty Peretz at TNR
Yglesias on Frum
UPDATE #4: Michelle Malkin
UPDATE #5: Alastair Jamieson at The Telegraph
UPDATE #6: More on the BP connection. John Burns in NYT
UPDATE #7: Now on US connection. Don Suber
DRJ at Patterico