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Straining the quality..

August 10, 2010

It would be easy to write that the controversy over the Lockerbie bombing has come back into the news recently. We have had demands from US Senators that Scottish and UK officials testify before them over the release of Megrahi. This has been followed by the comments of Scots Cardinal Keith O’Brien on the differences between a Scots Justice Department decision, based on compassion, and the seeming demand for vengeance from some US politicians and relatives of the deceased, an approach which he compared to the law as applied in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran.

However, the truth is that ‘Lockerbie’ never went away – not for the relatives of those who died, nor for the law professionals who played any part in the immediate and later reaction to the disaster. In Syracuse University, in the streets of that Borders town and in law offices and libraries from The Hague through Edinburgh to Washington DC, the downing of Pan Am 103 was never likely to diminish in importance and awareness.

It is, rightly or wrongly, a story which remains media friendly – tragedy, scale, the legal system, international politics, terrorism, and doubt, all contributing to an irresistible menu of newsworthiness. It is important, however, that we distinguish between fact and speculation.

What we know is that, on the night of December 21st 1988, flight Pan Am 103, a Boeing 747, was blown up by a bomb in a suitcase in its hold. Timed to explode when the flight was over mid Atlantic, a delay in take off meant that the plane impacted on the Scottish Border town of Lockerbie. A total of 270 people lost their lives, 11 of them on the ground. Many were American students returning home for Christmas, but the fatalities came from 21 countries.

Beyond these facts are a welter of theories as to responsibility, guilt, motivation, and investigation. People write about US foreign policy, the people who were on the flight, and those who missed it, the evidence that was heard in Megrahi’s trial, and the facts that were left out. Ultimately, there are still the relatives, friends and loved ones who are left to grieve and to choose their reaction to the disaster, and to these theories about what happened, who did it, and why.

Anyone will be able to understand the visceral response to the death of an offspring or parent: who did this? How could they? What’s to be done about them? But, in the reactions of the Lockerbie relatives, there are differing approaches. Cardinal O’Brien claimed earlier this week that much of the reaction from the American relatives seemed based on the kind of vengeful ‘justice’ meted out in states such as Saudi Arabia and Iran; that, in criticising the release, on compassionate grounds, of Megrahi, some relatives seemed to feel that they had been robbed of revenge, that they needed to see someone, anyone, suffer, to ameliorate their own anguish. He quoted the Bible: First cast out the beam out of your own eye; and then shall you see clearly to cast out the mote out of your brother’s eye.  In  other words, demanding vengeance for an abhorrent act merely leads to the avenger descending to the same level of inhumanity as the perpetrator.

I am not so sure that it is fair to suggest this is a particularly American trait, though it may well be associated with some parts of the US Government. However, it is true that there are a number of relatives who seem to adhere to this approach. However, prominent amongst those who do not seek vengeance but look for truth, is Dr Jim Swire.

Since disaster fell out of the winter skies, Dr Swire has been immense in his determination to remember and pay tribute to his much loved daughter, Flora, by examining every fact and pursuing every channel to try and ascertain the truth about what happened, or at least to make the relevant authorities accountable for their due processes. Remarkably, throughout the long years and despite his personal grief, he has remained dignified, humane and compassionate in his commitment to justice rather than revenge, and truth rather than convenient speculation. His style is not to attack but to question, not to complain but seek to understand, and not to demonise but enlighten. Given what he has suffered, along with the many relatives affected by the disaster, his persistence without rancour is truly inspirational.

In a moving letter to The Herald newspaper today, he states:  I want to live in a culture capable of compassion.  From a Scottish background,  living in England, he has always been meticulous in his understanding of the separate Scottish legal system and, indeed, in his praise for Scottish justice. He points out that, though he believes the initial conviction of Megrahi was patently ill founded, it was, after all, the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission that reviewed the verdict and found it dubious.

Whenever I see this most admirable of men interviewed about his loss and the consequent investigation, he is impressive in both his determination to get at the truth and in his resolution not to seek vengeance as some kind of measure of his bereavement.

His approach gives rise to the following thought: if those who lost a loved one could, for a brief moment, speak to the deceased; if they were to say  to their loved ones how much they loved and missed them, but that it would be alright because they were going to punish others for their loss, ‘kick some ass’ , in general parlance, or give grief to other families, in actual effect, do they really think their loved ones would give a big thumbs up and rest easy, being avenged, or would they more likely say: Enough grief is enough. Go for truth not revenge; proud loving memories, not rampant destruction.

I have no direct connection to Lockerbie and therefore, you might say, no right to comment. But Scotland is  a small country. A university acquaintance lived in Lockerbie’s Sherwood Crescent, but, through fate, at the ‘right’ end; I worked with the brother of the priest who was first on the scene; the senior policeman who directed the original inquiries lives in the next street to me, and Lockerbie itself is not 70  miles away from my door. In addition, it happened in the year of my son’s birth, so I have a living reminder of what those parents lost.

I know that, originally, Jim Swire was seen as a kind of spokesman for the Lockerbie relatives and that he regrets that some now feel unable to agree with his approach, and certainly, there have been  a number of very distressing interviews with some of the US relatives where the need to have ‘somebody punished’ seemed more important than finding out the truth. I think of the devastated people in another 20 countries who lost a piece of their lives that night. I wonder, too, about the contention that the downing of Flight 103 was an act of revenge against the American government, and, if that’s the case, how dreadful that knowledge not just for the American relatives but for those of other nationalities and, in particular for the people of Lockerbie and surrounding districts. Their lives were changed forever by the vagaries of windspeed and direction, the happenstance of a delayed take off, and the random nature of a chosen flightpath.

In a week when millions are affected and thousands have died in Pakistan, we do well to remember that no one nationality has a monopoly in grief, and, as soldiers die in a daily basis in Afghanistan, we are reminded that violence begets violence and the decisions of governments inevitably impact on individuals and their families.

I don’t know if Jim Swire will ever be allowed to find the truth; I fear revelation will not suit the agenda of those in control. But I do know this: every day since December 1988 he has made his Flora proud of him. I hope, in the end, that will prove enough.

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