Who knew the Scots placed such a high value on "compassion?" The land of Henry Knox, champion of Calvinism and Father of Presbyterianism, of forbidding landscapes and cold castles, Scotland released Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, the only person convicted in the 1988 bombing of a PanAm jetliner over Lockerbie, Scotland, on compassionate grounds because he has been diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer and told he only has three months to live.
Many have charged that the Scottish government was wrong, that it extended compassion to someone who did not deserve it. Certainly, the release of such a man in our own country is unthinkable. But, the problems with the Scottish government’s decision do not relate to the misapplication of compassion to someone undeserving but to their misunderstanding of what compassion demands in this situation and, even more importantly, what other values matter in the administration of justice.
Every human person is worthy of our compassion. The fact that Megrahi did something heinous and evil does not remove him from the human race. As in discussions of the death penalty, it is important to remember who the moral agent is in a given situation. The fact that Megrahi did a horrible thing in 1988 does not give us license to do horrible things in 2009. Megrahi surrendered his humanity in an act of depraved indifference to human life but we did not surrender ours.
What Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill did not understand in deciding to release this man is that as a result of Megrahi’s own actions, his life is intertwined with the loves of others who also have a claim on the compassion of the Scottish government. The families of the victims have had their bitter memories rekindled. The images of Megrahi receiving a hero’s welcome in Libya is understandably painful to them and that welcome was predictable. Compassion for the victims’ families should have trumped compassion for the perpetrator.
There is another, related reason MacAskill’s decision was wrong. Megrahi refused to admit his involvement in the Lockerbie bombing, maintaining his innocence even as he was released. (If doubts about his guilt concerned the government, they should have ordered a new trial, not let those doubts cloud their judgment in deciding whether or not to release him.) We know that many people are wrongly convicted of crimes they did not commit, and no one would argue against this man’s release if new evidence had been found that demonstrated his innocence. But, in any criminal justice system, unless new evidence is discovered, the conclusion of the courts must be accepted as truthful. Megrahi refused to acknowledge that truth. As we have seen in war-torn countries where the achievement of justice is impossible without reigniting civil war and truth commissions are established instead of tribunals, justice is impossible without truth and even where justice is still impossible, truth must be established. Victims are owed at least the respect of having the truth of their suffering told.
This concern for truth leads to the final reason the Scottish government was wrong to release Megrahi. In an interview on CNN, MacAskill repeatedly said that Scottish law recognized both justice and mercy. But, without the admission of guilt, there can be no contrition, and without contrition, it is hard to see how mercy works for the well-being of the guilty party. It does not help Megrahi or anyone else for him to think he got away with mass murder. As well, this lack of contrition inevitably means that others in Libya and elsewhere will conclude that Megrahi "got away with it" and that they might as well. In the frenzied political climate of the Arab Street, the compassion of the Scottish government will not become a motivating factor leading the mullahs or their minions to a similar sense of human compassion and mercy. The victims of Lockerbie also had a right not to see their murderer celebrated as a hero.
I confess a deep admiration for MacAskill and his commitment to compassion even in the difficult cases. And, it was sad and marvelous to watch him and Wolf Blitzer go round and round yesterday as they wrestled with what is, for us all, the ineffable quality of mercy. In the end, the Justice Secretary made the wrong call, but we can all forgive him for doing it for the right reasons.