In debates about the death penalty, supporters often trot out the worst cases - Hitler, Stalin, McVeigh - and ask folks like me, "yeah, but you wouldn't be against executing one of those guys, right?" The scope of the evil doesn't change my mind, but I concede there is emotion appeal there. Similarly, if you're talking about releasing folks from prison before their sentences are served for compassionate reasons - serious illness, family tragedy, age - folks against such programs would provide some eternal bastards and ask, "yeah, but would you release these guys?" Thanks to the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Justice, we now have one of "those guys."
Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi was convicted in 2001 of participating in the bombing of Pan Am flight 103, which exploded over Scotland in 1988, killing all 259 people on board as well as 11 people on the ground. He was the only person ever convicted in the bombing (his codefendant was acquitted) and was sentenced to life in prison. Today, Cabinet Secretary for Justice Kenny MacAskill released al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds - that he suffers from prostate cancer and has, according to experts, three months to live.
Scottish law provides for such release, but I've yet to see/hear anywhere exactly how common it is. Federal law has a similar provision (with a corresponding Sentencing Guideline to boot), but it's rarely invoked and I can't imagine it would be invoked in the favor of someone who killed 270 people. Assuming el-Megrahi's guilt,* is his crime so heinous to put any idea of compassion out of play? MacAskill makes a powerful plea otherwise:
Scotland will forever remember the crime that has been perpetrated against our people and those from many other lands. The pain and suffering will remain forever. Some hurt can never heal. Some scars can never fade. Those who have been bereaved cannot be expected to forget, let alone forgive. Their pain runs deep and the wounds remain.I will say this - I hope MacAskill wears something underneath his kilt, because he's going to need something to carry around the titanic balls he's shown by making this decision. However, in an interview on CNN this evening, he was also maddeningly evasive about whether there was any real precedent for his action. Whether this was a routine extension of a well used procedure or an extraordinary stretching of one is relevant, I think.
However, Mr Al-Megrahi now faces a sentence imposed by a higher power. It is one that no court, in any jurisdiction, in any land, could revoke or overrule. It is terminal, final and irrevocable. He is going to die.
In Scotland, we are a people who pride ourselves on our humanity. It is viewed as a defining characteristic of Scotland and the Scottish people. The perpetration of an atrocity and outrage cannot and should not be a basis for losing sight of who we are, the values we seek to uphold, and the faith and beliefs by which we seek to live.
Mr Al-Megrahi did not show his victims any comfort or compassion. They were not allowed to return to the bosom of their families to see out their lives, let alone their dying days. No compassion was shown by him to them.
But, that alone is not a reason for us to deny compassion to him and his family in his final days.
Our justice system demands that judgment be imposed but compassion be available. Our beliefs dictate that justice be served, but mercy be shown. Compassion and mercy are about upholding the beliefs that we seek to live by, remaining true to our values as a people. No matter the severity of the provocation or the atrocity perpetrated.
Death, as they say in death penalty litigation, is different. If that's the case, then 270 deaths are unique. It may be that an extraordinary act was appropriate. Or it was an extraordinary mistake. Either way, it's MacAskill's for the rest of time.
* Which is not a given. Although he gave up his final appeal, apparently to pave the way for this release, al-Megrahi has always maintained he didn't do it. More interestingly, several families of the victims in the UK agree with him and continue investigating the case. I don't know enough about it to make a decision one way or another.