Friday, August 21, 2009

Scottish Compassion

Yesterday Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill explained his decision to release Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi and allow him to return to Libya to live out the balance of his life, expected to be brief due to terminal illness.

I know little about al-Megrahi and, beyond the fact that my uncle was supposed to be on Pan Am Flight 103 but wasn't, know little about the crime he is convicted of committing.

But I found Secretary MacAskill's speech remarkable, perhaps because I so rarely see compassion from the people with the political power to exercise it.

Given America's lust for incarceration and punishment, I cannot imagine this speech ever being made by a politician with an American accent. Sadly, compassion is not an animating feature of our criminal justice system.

I have thought a lot about why America is so different in this regard - our history of racial polarization, our frontier mentality, a belief that any American has freedom to succeed in life and the converse belief that our crimes and failures are ours alone. But none of this means that compassion is unamerican, does it?

Here is what MacAskill had to say:

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.

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.

For these reasons -- and these reasons alone -- it is my decision that Mr. Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, convicted in 2001 for the Lockerbie bombing, now terminally ill with prostate cancer, be released on compassionate grounds and allowed to return to Libya to die.


  1. Thank you so much for posting this.

    Cancer imprisons a person in a greater way than any state-enforced incarceration ever could. I really wish the U.S. could elevate its criminal justice system beyond "if-you-punch-me-i'll-punch-you-right-back".

  2. I agree with importance of compassion but this story has another ugly and equally true side dealing with politics and the need for Libyan oil

  3. a voice of reason and yes, compassion, barely heard over the screaming and shouting.

    nice. thank you.