The Lockerbie Bomber Release


1. Lockerbie, Mai Lai, and Our Relative Sense of Justice
2. Let Them Throw Stones
3. Stoning Rationality and Subverting Justice

1. Lockerbie, Mai Lai, and Our Relative Sense of Justice

Everywhere in the Western world this week there was shock and outrage at the release of Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, the former Lybian agent convicted for his part in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, which killed 270 people. Mr. al-Megrahi had only served eight years of a life sentence, and his release was seen by many, from President Obama on down, as justice denied. This was of course exacerbated by the heroes welcome he received upon arrival in Tripoli, and swirling stories that he had been released for oil contracts, not the compassionate grounds claimed by the Scottish government.

When one digs a little deeper, there is of course a great deal of controversy over the legitimacy of the trial and conviction of Mr. al-Begrahi, and a special appeal was pending until he withdrew it shortly before the announcement that he would be repatriated. Little of that is being heard among the outrage this week. But quite aside from all that, how does our outrage match up against our own conduct in dealing with our own agents who perpetrate outrages against civilians in violation of domestic and international law?

In one of life's little ironies, this last week also saw the first public comment by former Lt. William Calley on the Mai Lai massacre since his conviction for murder in a court martial in 1971. Lt. Calley was the junior officer leading a company of infantry that massacred the civilian residents of a Vietnamese village in one of the most notorious atrocities of the Vietnam war. The number of dead civilians is commonly listed as being between 300-500. There was an initial cover-up of the incident, followed by a court martial after another soldier disclosed details of the event to congressmen. The facts would have provided grounds for prosecution for war crimes. Lt. Calley was convicted on 22 counts of murder, and sentenced to life in prison. President Nixon, however, reduced his sentence, and he ended up serving three years of house arrest.

Now, some will say that these are very different cases, one involving a crime committed in the heat of battle, the other a cold-blooded terrorist act. And there is truth to the observation. They are not entirely analogous. But there are countless other examples of Western governments turning a blind eye to atrocities committed by our own agents or those of our allies. The point remains that we gloss over our failure to punish those who commit horrific crimes in our own cause, and become outraged to the point of condemning an entire system or people when those who have committed crimes against us are seemingly forgiven. As I write this, the blogosphere is lighting up with outrage that CIA operatives who tortured suspected terrorists should be investigated, far less tried, for their actions.

This should cause us to question the source of our outrage, and the integrity of our moral compass. It is not really a sense of justice that is the root of anger, but a deeper primordial tribal instinct dressed up in the language of justice. And calling it a matter of justice just makes us all look like hypocrites. - Gamma.

2. Let Them Throw Stones

"Now, some will say that these are very different cases, one involving a crime committed in the heat of battle, the other a cold-blooded terrorist act. And there is truth to the observation. They are not entirely analogous."

In fact, they are not at all analogous. The connection is non-existent. And unfair. The Lockerbie bomber was convicted of being part of a dedicated, tyrant-sanctioned effort to target and kill civilians. Al-Megrahi, a former Libyan intelligence officer, was released on compassionate grounds after a diagnosis of prostate cancer that gave him less than three months to live. This, it turns out, might have been connected to a series of discussions between Libya and the U.K. connected to oil concessions. And then, to really, really piss everyone off, the Libyans greeted al-Megrahi like a conquering hero.

There are all sorts of troubling considerations around this. The issue of al-Megrahi's release is a fitting subject for debate. There are legitimate views on both sides. The actual circumstances of his release and reception Libya are shocking and vile. This is no hero or martyr. People are right to be angry. And what happened forty years ago in My Lai is irrelevant to their legitimate and deeply held sense of outrage.

My Lai was was horrible. But there are many things that make it very different from the Lockerbie bombing. It's discovery was a triumph of the rule of law. The mechanisms of the American democracy kept the event from being hidden away by the military. Brave and persistent members of the American military brought it to the attention of civilian authorities and journalists. It has become part of the American cultural landscape. The prosecutions and investigations were unsatisfying (they alway are) but the incident is well known and was highly publicized. The three helicopter pilots who stopped it have been honored in a ceremony where a military official called it "one of the most shameful chapters in the military's history." What more should we ask of the Americans? They have done better than most countries would have.

But even if none of this had happened, what argument can be made that denies them the moral right to be aggrieved by the release and celebration of a convicted terrorist? This is a bizarre assertion. It takes the logic that people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones to an absurd extreme.

It is an old testament view of collective guilt and responsibility that we have seen trotted out countless times before. The Soviets used to point to the treatment of African Americans as evidence of the free market's moral vacuum as they were systematically starving and executing millions of their own. South Africa used to raise Canada's treatment of its first nations peoples in response to criticisms of apartheid. Or we see the same logic inverted with the twisted reasoning that the Germans' targeting of Jews in the holocaust increases the degree of culpability of the Israelis in respect of their treatment of Palestinians.

These notions of collective guilt ( or "a deeper, primordial tribal instinct") are historical myths or dangerous rhetorical devices. They do not reflect the reality of how people experience injustice. The less easy, more nuanced truth is that once can, despite having sinned, denounce sin. A whole religion of some influence is based on this very premise.

This is not the failure of morality but the beginnings of it. And that won't change regardless of what contradictory or troubling details you might pull out of my past. - Beta.

3. Stoning Rationality and Subverting Justice

Well, the spluttering outrage of my friend has him firing in all directions with wild abandon, but unfortunately entirely missing the point. And twisting a few points for good measure.

The point initially made, quite simply, was that there is a disturbing disparity in the "justice" we demand of those who offend against us, and the forgiveness we extend to those who offend in our cause. And that disparity, extreme as it is, suggests our outrage is not fuelled by any real sense of justice, but rather by a desire for retribution, which is exacerbated by tribal animosity.

The comparison of the Lockerbie bombing and the Mai Lai massacre cases was not an attempt to equate the magnitude or inherent evil of the respective crimes, but to illustrate how differently we as a society view a fairly similar treatment of criminals convicted of murdering civilians in the service of their country. The fact that the discovery and ultimate resolution of Mai Lai was a testament to the rule of law and other democratic mechanisms in the United States may be true but is entirely beside the point. The fact that the Lockerbie bombing was a cold-blooded "terrorist" attack is similarly irrelevant - we executed German and Japanese war criminals for conduct less heinous than that of Lt. Calley at Mai Lai. The fact in issue is that in both cases, Lockerbie and Mai Lai, the man convicted of murdering a multitude of civilians, was sentenced to life in prison, but released early, with political motives lurking in the background - and that our collective response to the treatment of each was very different.

As for assertion that this "is an old testament view of collective guilt and responsibility that we have seen trotted out countless times before", followed by historical examples of Soviet and South African shrill claims of Western hypocrisy, it does nothing to undermine my point. Indeed, it helps to make the point. The Soviet criticism of the United States for the plight of black Americans while millions starved in the Soviet Union lacked any moral authority, because the motives for the criticism quite transparently had little to do with the principle upon which the criticism was purportedly based. It is not that the Soviet criticism was in itself without basis, but their radical and obvious failure to themselves abide by the very principles that grounded their criticism, undermined its legitimacy and left them looking like Hypocrites.

Finally, much of my friend's outrage seems to stem from the nefariousness of the Lockerbie Bombing itself, and his confidence that al-Megrahi was responsible. He describes al-Meghahi as having been "convicted as a dedicated, tyrant-sanctioned effort to target and kill civilians." As I have already argued, this is really beside the point. But it is also not firm ground upon which to build one's sand-castle of an argument. There remain very serious questions about the extent to which the conviction of al-Megrahi was obtained through the bribing of key witnesses and the fabrication of evidence by the agents of Western governments. That was the subject of criticism by a UN inquiry, and the basis for the appeal that was pending. It is one of the reasons that Lybians have embraced al-Megrahi, not as a murdering hero, but as a wrongfully convicted man. Thus, in some respects, the Lockerbie Bombing conviction could hav been a subversion of the very rule of law and democratic mechanisms that my friend argues were so admirably illustrated by the Mai Lai massacre conviction.

At the end of the day, however, my point was about our claim that our outrage is fuelled by a sense of justice. It isn't, and saying it is in the face of evidence to the contrary only undermines the authority of our arguments, and diminishes the power of justice itself. - Gamma.

1 Comentário:

Vigilante said...

You have connected the two dots I missed when I posted recently on Calley and al-Megrahi separately!


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