Lockerbie: full marks to Scotland’s Mr MacAskill

I have no doubt that the Scottish National Party’s Mr MacAskill, Justice Secretary in the devolved government of Scotland, was right to release Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, the Libyan convicted of complicity in the Lockerbie bombing, from prison in Scotland to enable him to spend his last few weeks on earth in his own country with his family.

A friend who has been giving television interviews about the case has also supported Kenny MacAskill’s decision.  I sent him a message of congratulations, copying it to a number of others of varying political views.  In this message I commented that I couldn’t help relishing the spectacle of this Scottish National Party Cabinet minister, of whom none of us had ever heard until last week, defiantly rejecting the pressures from the seven misguided Senators, an interfering Hillary Clinton and a sorrowful White House to make a decent, humane decision (lucky for Megrahi it wasn’t Jack Straw!).

In my view far too much exposure has been given by the media in recent weeks to the views of the victims’ families, especially those clamouring for Megrahi to be left to die in his Scottish prison cell. It seems to me that their perfectly natural emotional involvement disqualifies their wishes from being given special weight, rather than entitling their views to be treated as paramount. Our judicial system is designed to take justice out of the hands of victims with, in many cases, their natural desire for vengeance, and to ensure an objectivity of judgement that no-one should ask or expect of them. We can and should feel the utmost sympathy for them in their loss, but they should all be invited to read the Oresteia[1] and ponder its lessons, available to us ever since 458 BC.  It’s also a pity that attention has been concentrated on the outrage expressed by the American victims’ families (who are of course the majority) at Megrahi’s release, with relatively little attention paid to some of the British families whose spokespersons have in some cases welcomed the decision, often also expressing grave doubts about whether Megrahi’s conviction was safe.  As a BBC report says, ‘Doctor Jim Swire, whose daughter Flora was killed in the Lockerbie bombing, has praised the Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill for his ”brave” decision in releasing Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi from jail on compassionate grounds.’  You can listen to Dr Swire’s admirably humane interview here.

Perhaps an adjustment is needed to the moral compasses of those, including David Cameron, who have been arguing that because Megrahi showed no compassion to his Lockerbie victims (assuming that he was responsible for their deaths), no compassion should have been shown to him by the Scottish judicial system. I suppose by the same token these revenge freaks would like to see torturers judically tortured. It’s a strange ethical philosophy that wants society to adopt the morals of a mass murderer (which is what those concerned believe Megrahi to be), principally, apparently, in the hope that it might make some of the victims’ families feel better.

Several reports have hinted heavily that the whole thing has been a dark conspiracy by the British government, presumably in league with the Scottish National Party, to protect BP’s and Shell’s Libyan oil interests. No evidence has so far been produced in support of this, and indeed it would have been wrong to allow such mercenary considerations to influence a quasi-judicial decision, although personally I would feel more indignant about any such impropriety had political or commercial considerations led to Megrahi’s release being refused instead of allowed. Anyway, I can’t see anything wrong in principle with governments doing what they properly can to protect their countries’ oil interests. It would be scandalous if they didn’t. (By the same token, I was always uneasy about the proposition, a propos the Iraq war, that the US was behaving wickedly in seeking to protect the security of its Iraqi and other middle east oil supplies, although obviously that legitimate concern couldn’t justify the unprovoked aggression against and occupation of a sovereign independent country.)

Where I do sympathise with some of the victims’ families is in their desire to get to the bottom of what really happened in 1988 and to establish who (plural) were responsible for it. When the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission rules, after exhaustive review of the evidence, that there are grounds for an appeal against Megrahi’s conviction, one has to take note and start to ask questions. Even if he was personally involved, it’s clear that others were too. It’s regrettable that Megrahi’s appeal had to be dropped as a condition of his release on compassionate grounds (as I understand it). But the likelihood is that even if the appeal had been heard, we wouldn’t have got satisfactory answers to all the questions still hanging in the air. The same probably applies to any judicial inquiry, even in the unlikely event of any government agreeing to set one up.  I wonder whether anyone apart from Gadaffi — or even Gadaffi, indeed! — really knows what happened. I suppose it’s just going to be another Mary [sic] Celeste.

As a matter of interest, of the 15 or 20 responses to my pro-release e-mail message, only two have so far disagreed, arguing that Megrahi should have been left to die in prison in Scotland.  A selection of those responses is on my website, here.

[1] “Initially, in their role as avengers of bloodshed, the Erinyes are classical equivalents to the Code of Hammurabi and the Torah, which demand “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”. Thus, they initially embody the concept of lex talionis, or “law of retribution”. The change from an archaic self-help justice by personal revenge or vendetta to administration of justice by trial symbolises the passage from a primitive society governed by instincts, to a modern society governed by reason: justice is decided by a jury of peers, representing the citizen body and its values, and the gods themselves sanction this transition by taking part in the judicial procedure, arguing and voting on an equal footing with the mortals. This theme of the polis self-governed by consent through lawful institutions, as opposed to tribalism and superstition, recurs in Greek art and thought.” [Emphasis added]


16 Responses

  1. Lisa says:

    Even though he is dying,he should not be trusted and he should still be monitored.

  2. Tim Weakley says:

    A minor comment, perhaps: news photos of Megrahi’s welcome at Tripoli Airport show what look like dozens of saltires being waved – you know, the St Andrew’s cross, white diagonals on blue. I can’t believe there would normally be more than a couple in the whole of Libya, outside the homes of ex-pat Scots and the British embassy. So clearly the official agency that directs spontaneous demonstrations and distributes the appropriate national flags for the arrival of approved foreign dignitaries had been in overdrive in anticipation of Megrahi’s well-orchestrated rent-a-crowd reception.

    Brian writes: Tim, this is a good point. Obviously the whole things was orchestrated. It seems to me, though, that Gordon Brown’s and Barack Obama’s solemn messages to Colonel Gadaffi ordering him not to give Mr al-Megrahi a hero’s welcome, and their subsequent high-profile expressions of shock, horror, etc., when their orders were (utterly predictably) ignored, were exceedingly ill judged. It’s self-defeating to issue public demands which are obviously not going to be complied with; they might as well have sent messages pleading with Gadaffi to snub them. In any case, since the position of the Libyans is that al-Megrahi is an innocent man, wrongly convicted and unjustly imprisoned (on which a good many serious people in the West agree), his return to his homeland was naturally a matter for celebration, whether orchestrated or not. To have smuggled him in and consigned him to obscurity for what’s left of his life would have seemed to imply an admission of his guilt. Wasn’t there anyone at No. 10 or the White House capable of pointing out to their respective bosses these rather obvious truths?

  3. Louise Barder says:

    I don’t agree with your argument that opposition to the decision to free Megrahi flies in the face of the objectivity of our judicial system. You can still be objective about the case and feel strongly that this man was convicted – after a perfectly respectable trial in a civilized western country – of serious crimes, and he received a reasonable sentence that reflected the heinous nature of his crimes. Whether he was appealing his conviction, and whether that conviction was sound (which at this point we will never know), should (in my opinion) have had no bearing on the decision whether or not to release him. Most convictions nowadays are appealed or questioned, and if every prisoner with compassionate grounds for release were given extra leniency based on the possible unsoundness  of the conviction, we would have a lot of criminals out on the streets.  The reasons for imprisoning people convicted of heinous crimes are not for vengeance or to appease the victims and families of victims.  It is part deterrent, part protecting society, and part basic punishment.  Just because the victims and families of the victims have been outspoken in this case, it doesn’t mean that those of us who oppose the release of Megrahi who have no personal connection with the case are wanting vengeance. I believe that he should have served the sentence that he received because it stops him from committing another crime, it deters prospective terrorists, and it is punishing him for his crime. All of those reasons for keeping him in prison have been undone by his release. It is unfortunate for him and his family that he became ill while in prison, but I’m confident he would have received compassionate palliative care and died a dignified death in the Scottish prison, where his family could have visited him. I don’t believe in the death penalty, but I also don’t believe in this extreme, PC, pseudo-ethical, bending-over-backwards protection of rights of convicted felons  at the expense of protecting the rights of a society and its perfectly reasonable system of justice.

    Brian writes: Thank you, Louise, for stating your disagreements with such courtesy and restraint. In fact I agree with much of what you say. Some reservations, however:

    1. I don’t in any way question the absolute right of anyone, whether or not personally involved in the Lockerbie tragedy, to express publicly his or her disagreement with the Scottish Justice Secretary’s decision on purely objective grounds. Judging the respective weight to be given to the claims of punishment for a heinous crime on the one hand, against the claims of mercy or compassion for a dying man on the other, as Scottish law required him to do, was bound to be a highly subjective matter and in the end it’s a question of one’s private values that will determine one’s views on whether he came down on the right side. I think he did: you’re fully entitled to the tenable view that he didn’t. He made it clear that he had listened to the views of all concerned and taken them into account in making his decision.

    2. Nor do I question the right of the families of the victims to express as forcefully as they can their strong and understandable desire for the man convicted of the murder of their loved ones to be kept behind bars until he dies, cancer or no cancer. I do argue though that the minister making the decision should not have given more weight to their views than to anyone else’s, and I assume that he didn’t.

    3. I agree that the legitimate doubts about whether al-Megrahi’s conviction was safe should not have influenced MacAskill’s decision on whether to grant compassionate release, as provided for in these circumstances by law. Mr MacAskill has very properly made it clear that any such doubts did not in fact influence his decision, which was taken on the necessary basis that the man had been convicted by an established court and must therefore be assumed to be guilty. But that doesn’t mean that MacAskill was wrong, as some commentators have asserted, to refer to the widespread doubts about the correctness of the guilty verdict in his press conference after he had made his decision on release.

    4. I’m not sure that it’s possible to eliminate the concept of vengeance from the rationale for the judicial punishment of offenders. One of the three generally accepted justifications for judicial punishment is ‘retribution’ (i.e. what you call ‘basic punishment’): society’s retribution against someone who has broken its rules. This indeed is often regarded as the principal reason for punishing criminals, although equally some question its ethical validity. I don’t think it’s possible entirely to separate the concept of vengeance from that of retribution. The essential thing, though, is to distinguish between the private desire for vengeance and and the right of society as a whole to exact retribution, the latter being a civilised substitute for the former. It’s easy and necessary to understand the strong objections of the victims’ families (although only some of them) to the release of al-Megrahi before he had served his full 27-year term in prison. Those objections though are inevitably rooted in a desire for vengeance, whereas the decision of society’s judicial system has to disregard such personal motivations and consider only the objective rights and wrongs of the course of action to be taken. Incidentally, as Mr MacAskill forcefully pointed out, it’s not his decision that is preventing al-Megrahi from serving out the whole of his 27-year prison sentence: it’s the death sentence imposed by what he described as a Higher Power. A death sentence has been substituted for a long prison sentence. A few weeks with his family in his own country is poor compensation for that upping of his sentence.

    5. I agree that other purposes of putting (some, not all) convicted criminals in prison are to deter others from committing similar crimes, and to protect society from the risk of the prisoner reoffending by taking him out of circulation. (Another again is rehabilitation, hardly relevant in this case.) But I don’t see how it can be asserted that either of those purposes has been defeated by releasing al-Megrahi a few weeks or months before death would have released him anyway. No potential criminal is likely to reason that it’s worth while to kill several hundred innocent people because of the possibility that if caught and convicted, and sentenced to a long term of imprisonment (which would otherwise have deterred hiom), he might not actually serve the full sentence if he were to fall terminally ill during it and be released a few weeks before dying. Similarly, it defies belief that during the few weeks left to him al-Megrahi is likely to carry out another terrorist attack while the bright light of international publicity is shining on him, and while he himself and his government and compatriots are all at pains to insist that he was innocent of complicity in Lockerbie. It’s true that he’ll continue to be feted by the Libyans and perhaps others until he dies, to the fury of the UK and US governments and the victims’ families: but that’s an entirely different matter, and certainly not a valid reason for keeping him in prison if the balance of other legitimate considerations dictated otherwise.

    6. You imply that early release of a terminally ill (or age-incapacitated) prisoner is always contrary to our justice system. But there are other examples of early release on such grounds, the most recent being the train robber, Ronnie Biggs. As Oliver Miles pertinently recalled in one of his television interviews, the US, UK and French governments persistently demanded the release on compassionate grounds before his death of the war criminal Rudolf Hess: it was only the vengeful refusal to agree of the then Soviet government that prevented it (and Hess’s sentence at Nuremburg had been for the term of his natural life, with the explicit intention that he should die in prison: that was never the intention behind the sentence on al-Megrahi, who could reasonably have expected to be released after serving his tariff of 27 years). In other words, so far from being contrary to our — or at any rate the British and Scottish — system of justice, early release on compassionate grounds in certain circumstances is part and parcel of it.

    At the end of the day, though, there’s no definitive right or wrong about the Scottish Justice Secretary’s decision. It’s a question of personal values, and de gustibus non est disputandum.

  4. John Miles says:

    For once I find myself agreeing with just about your every word.

    Mr McAskill’s reply to Mr Mueller reminds me of an anecdote in Herodotus.

    It was alleged that the Persians mutilated, after his death in battle, the body of Spartan king Leonidas, leader-from-the-front of the suicide squad at Thermopylae and gallows-humorist extraordinaire.

    Not long after the Greeks, under Spartan regent Pausanias, finally sorted out the Persian invaders at Plataea.
    Some enthusiast suggested that the corpse of Persian commander Mardonius should be mutilated in revenge.
    Pausanias’s “cold, blunt and utterly admirable response” was to tell him that that was not the Greek way.

    Brian writes: Many thanks for an excellent and apposite story!

  5. Ronnie Smartt says:

    Bravo. You are right of course.  We have a good tradition in this country, though I have no idea how old it is, of releasing prisoners who may safely be allowed to die at home.  I have no reason to suppose that these conditions have been unfulfilled in this case. I have a feeling that we used to give the release under the Royal Prerogative which was exercised by the Home Secretary or the territorial Secretaries of State without Cabinet advice or comment in Parliament, though with much pressure in terrorist cases.  Compassion was limited only by the need to reduce the period of “freedom” to a minimum, requiring daily advice from doctors.  The Scots have possibly been generous.  As for the “hero’s” welcome in Libya, does it matter very much if the people there thus welcome Mr Megrahi now or his corpse in a couple of weeks?  Terrorists, I am afraid, usually get a good reception somewhere.  Finally however I do not favour any further inquiry unless it iwould be for the general good here.  Providing “closure” for the victims is for their friends and pastors.  Else we should be up to our arses in inquiries.

    Brian writes: Unsurprisingly, I warmly agree with everything you say. I also agree with the Chair of the Scottish Human Rights Commission, Professor Alan Miller, who on television this morning (23 August) regretted that under our justice system decisions such as whether to grant early release to convicted criminals on compassionate grounds, as clearly envisaged and practised under Scottish law, are taken by a politician rather than by a court or other judicial body, although as you rightly say we have a long tradition of requiring certain ministers to function in well defined areas in a quasi-judicial capacity, i.e. putting aside party political considerations and resisting external pressures to be influenced by party political or other extraneous factors, just as we expect our judges to act in taking their decisions. Professor Miller incidentally applauded Mr MacAskill’s decision to release al-Megrahi, giving three cogent reasons for doing so.

    On the “hero’s welcome” given to al-Megrahi on his return, it’s worth emphasising (again) that he was not welcomed as a mass killer of infidels (which would indeed have been deeply objectionable) but as a Libyan regarded by Libyans (and not only by Libyans) rightly or wrongly as a man unjustly accused and convicted on incomplete evidence, with UK and US authorities allegedly withholding relevant information that might have exonerated him: thus as a person unjustly imprisoned for nearly a decade and released only when his death was imminent.

    As to the demand for yet another inquiry, I also agree that “giving closure to the victims’ relatives” is not a sufficient ground for inquiring into these murky matters. There’s no point in an inquiry without a sporting chance of the truth being at last revealed by it. Since almost every government involved, except Scotland’s, seems to have an interest in keeping the true and complete facts under wraps, an inquiry would almost certainly achieve nothing.

  6. Anon says:

    The completely over-the-top bullying from the Director of the FBI yesterday prompted a thought (well, several thoughts, in fact!): namely, don’t the Americans have a political tradition by which outgoing Presidents may — and often do — pardon a bunch of political cronies spending well-deserved spells in jail?

    Brian writes: A commentator who wishes to remain anonymous has also made this point in a private e-mail:

    The FBI man’s intervention is somewhat undermined by his belief that there was a jury trial: you would have thought someone in the FBI would have known that it was only judges, and that since he was the officer in charge he might have followed it closely enough to have known that himself.

  7. robin says:

    My qualm about your original posting, Brian, starts (and finishes) with your opening line: “I have no doubt that…” It seems to me not just possible but necessary to have doubts (even if they are ultimately irresolvable) – about the release of al Megrahi, the reasons for the release, and the manoeuvrings surrounding it.

    I agree that, if we had a simple case of a convicted and undoubted mass murderer imminently about to die from cancer, a decision to release him on compassionate grounds and to return him to his own country would be proper (and indeed inescapable under Scots law). I agree also that the vindictive feelings of his victims’ families should have no place in such a decision. (It is a sad commentary on democracy that we find it so hard as a society to deal judiciously and humanely with cases of this kind – vide Mary Bell, Myra Hindley, and too many others. And a terrible comment on American society that it doesn’t even try.)

    But this is not the situation. Instead we have a man whose conviction is widely regarded as unsafe, who is pursuing an appeal to clear his name (although likely to die before the appeal is heard). His desire to clear his name and to die at home are in conflict, since he cannot be released while legal proceedings are pending. So he is “persuaded” to drop his appeal, in return for which “compassion” can be exercised on his behalf. And further embarrassing inquiry into just what happened at Lockerbie and why, who (else) was involved and at whose direction, can be avoided.  To the relief of  BP, Shell, Col Gadaffi and HM Govt. Also to the relief of the SNP in that the serious failings of the Scottish justice system in the original trial can now be conveniently forgotten.

    The one point at which I can relate to the families’ “outrage” at this decision is that, for some of them, this ends their last chance of getting to some closer approximation to the truth of this appalling incident. I can well understand why any pragmatic politician would be glad to draw a line under the whole affair, and get back to business as usual. It is quite possible that if the demands of justice (real justice) had been followed, the sky really would have fallen. Which would, in the immediate term,  have helped no one. But can one be happy, and have “no doubt” about a decision which so conveniently saves everyone’s face (or at least enables them to wipe the egg off privately). Since you are still mindful of your Greek tragedians, what would Antigone have said?

    Brian writes: Thanks, Robin. It’s only about the rightness of the decision to release Mr al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds that I have “no doubt”, and nothing that I have read here and elsewhere (including the spectacularly wrong-headed editorials in today’s Sunday Times and Observer) has planted any doubt in my mind on that narrow but fundamental point.

    All the other matters you discuss raise tricky and often worrying questions and I feel no certainty about my views on them. I agree that it would be desirable for the victims’ families to be allowed to know the full facts about the bombing, and especially for those responsible, including governments, to be identified beyond doubt. However, I’m not sure that they have a “right” to that information, especially if its publication would be likely to affect negatively moves towards accommodation in the middle east with such governments as those of Syria and Iran, in the interests of long-term peace, or to damage legitimate interests of various western countries (including the UK) in securing a share of the business of oil exploration in Libya and eventual secure access to Libyan oil and gas. It’s not obvious to me that all those major political, economic and commercial objectives should automatically be subordinated to the understandable wish of the 270 families to know who caused their loved ones’ deaths. Those, not including me, who regard all national commercial objectives, and political objectives pursued in secret, as inherently wicked and sinister, will naturally think that they couldn’t justify continued secrecy about what really happened over Lockerbie. On the whole I think they do. In any case it seems to me improbable in the extreme that the governments with an interest (legitimate or not) in keeping the true facts under wraps would nevertheless allow them to come out even if some other government or international authority were to set up an inquiry, so that argument is probably academic.

    None of this seems to me to bear on the rightness or otherwise of the decision to release al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds. I know of no evidence that the decision was in any way influenced by commercial or geo-political considerations. If anything such considerations would surely have pointed to a decision to let him die in prison in Scotland, almost certainly long before his second appeal could have been heard. Releasing him to go in freedom to Libya entails an obvious risk that before he dies he will spill some inconvenient beans: indeed he has already threatened to do so. None of his likely revelations however seems likely to take any skin off the Scottish government’s back, so there seems no reason to doubt the genuine objectivity of Mr MacAskill’s decision, nor to scent conspiracy where none apparently occurred. Moreover I question your assumption that al-Megrahi had to be “persuaded” (your ironical quotation marks) to drop his appeal against conviction: the brute fact was that if he had persisted with his appeal, he could not have been released before it was heard, by which time he would probably have died. He had to choose between (a) possibly surviving long enough for his appeal to be heard and his name possibly being cleared as a result, both very iffy, and (b) being released now in time to spend his last weeks in his own country with his wife and five children. Which would you have chosen? A no-brainer, surely.

    PS: Since you ask, I have always regarded Antigone as noble, brave, principled — and barmy knowingly to sacrifice her life in the name of honouring a corpse. Let the dead bury their dead!

  8. Oliver Miles says:

    I have been too busy responding to calls from the media in the last few days to comment on your blog, which contains if I may say so some excellent and thought-provoking material.
    Following the decision to return Megrahi, I am quite baffled by the way that our leaders, including Gordon Brown and Barack Obama, have sought out an unnecessary battle with the Libyans on ground where they were sure to lose, the question of Megrahi’s welcome in Libya. In an interview this morning on BBC breakfast television I said that Obama’s interventions had verged on the ridiculous. I had in mind his statement that the USA had suggested that the Libyans should put Megrahi under house arrest. I wonder what legal basis for this he had in mind, or is he in the business of encouraging Qadhafi to lock people up without legal basis?
    I also had some fun with the extraordinary letter from Robert Mueller, the Director of the FBI, to MacAskill. He justified writing it on the grounds that he was involved in the original indictment and knew the facts. I said that since the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Board had expressed the view that there might have been a miscarriage of justice, involvement in the original indictment wasn’t necessarily an advantage. I wonder if any of your bloggers has to hand a copy of the Private Eye supplement on the Lockerbie case by the late Paul Foot, which I think has quite a lot to say about Mueller’s role in the matter. As for the facts, the letter contains at least two egregious errors: it implies in several places that all the families of the victims were outraged by the decision to send Megrahi home, and it implies that he was found guilty in a jury trial. Surely somebody in the FBI must know that there was no jury?
    Tomorrow, oblivious to the rule that when you are in a hole you should stop digging, the Scottish Parliament is to debate the matter. Watch this space!

    Brian writes: Oliver, thank you for this. I entirely agree about the unaccountable behaviour of President Obama and our prime minister in regard to the Libyans. Publicly making demands of or even suggestions to a foreign head of state that you know will be ignored is simply in viting a snub: and then to complain noisily about the snub simply compounds the public relations disaster. Mr Mueller’s extraordinary ill-judged bullying letter is surely another own goal.

    I suppose the Scottish government can’t prevent the Labour opposition (and other parties in opposition) from staging a debate tomorrow on the decision to release Mr al-Megrahi. But with the Americans jumping up and down about it and threatening to boycott Scotch whisky and the Highland Games, the Scottish Labour party is in danger of looking opportunistically unpatriotic if they persist in joining the hue and cry. Meanwhile many of the London media are making fools of themselves by demanding that the Westminster government either supports or condemns Mr MacAllister’s decision, despite having no locus standi for doing so and indeed risking bringing down the wrath of the Scots if they did. Our media still haven’t grasped the implications of devolution.

  9. robin says:

    I think it is naive to believe that al Megrahi was in reality released on compassionate grounds, whether it would have been right to make such a decision or not. It seems to me totally clear that he was in fact released simply and solely to avoid the embarrassments that would have engulfed a variety of parties had his appeal (which could have continued after his death) gone ahead. It seems to me that we live in a sad world when the pursuit of justice is trumped by issues of commercial convenience and the imperative not to upset the usual undesirables in the Middle East. Morality apart, decisions taken for reasons of contemporary convenience usually have unpleasant longer-term consequences.

    I would have expected a less Machiavellian approach from someone so addicted to, for instance, the absolute supremacy of law as contained in the UN Charter.

    Your superficial reading of Antigone will not do: the play lives on because it is concerned not with the disposal of inconvenient corpses but with the issue of conscience and principle. There hasn’t been much of either displayed in this affair, despite resounding claims to the contrary.

    Brian writes: Robin, not for the first time we’ll have to endure the fact of our disagreement with as much fortitude as we can muster. If it’s naive of me to make a judgement about the rightness of a compassionate instead of a vindictive (or at best an inhumanly stern) decision, without speculating uselessly about the possible motives of the man who had to make it, then I’m content to be thought naive. We need not seek windows into men’s souls. As to the pros and cons of pursuing probably fruitless investigations into who did what to bring about the dreadful crime of Lockerbie, I can’t perceive any great issue of principle: nor does the status of the UN Charter come into it, as far as I can see. If it’s Machiavellian to suggest a duty to calculate the likely geo-political and commercial consequences of our actions, then I must be both Machiavellian and naive, an interesting combination. Some might suggest that just such a combination is characteristic of my former trade.

    As to Antigone, I can but plead that my earlier comment was (fairly obviously?) tongue-in-cheek. The conflict between private conscience and duty to obey the laws of the state is of course potentially part of the human condition. Many years ago when an undergraduate I wrote a letter to the Manchester [sic] Guardian about the dilemma I seemed likely to face if called up (as a then soldier on the reserve) to fight at Suez in a war that I regarded as fraudulent, immoral and unnecessary, while recognising my obligation to obey the orders of a democratically elected government. Perhaps as a result of my letter being published, I wasn’t in the event called up for Suez, but plenty of others in my position were. I still don’t know what I would have done if I had been. And I’m still not entirely sure whether Antigone did the right thing.

  10. Barrie England says:

    When is Rowan Williams going to tell us what he thinks of all this? He’s strangely silent for a man normally ready to share his views on matters of national interest.

    Brian writes: Perhaps we shall hear from the Archbishop eventually. But I see no reason to treat his opinion, if he has one, any more reverently than anyone else’s.

  11. Brian,
    It occurs to me that had MacAskill decided against releasing  Megrahi on compassionate grounds, that decision would have been subject to, whatever in Scotland represents our judicial review. It would have been easy for Megrahi’s lawyers to have then argued that  MacAskill failed to take properly into account those things he was legally obliged to. I suspect this may have been the legal advice tendered to the MacJustice Secretary. Whatever the decision, Megrahi was on his way beck to Tripoli.

    Brian writes: Thanks, Tony. That looks to me very plausible.

  12. Tim says:

    An excellent argument, which I completely agree with (and am just too lazy to write myself). Its a shame more online cases in defense have not been made.

    Brian writes: Thanks, Tim. I think it’s also surprising that the case for Mr MacA’s decision hasn’t been more fully and fairly deployed in the UK (or, presumably, the US) media.

  13. Brian says:

    With reference to ‘Lavengro’s’ trackback (above), I have posted a lengthy comment on his blog post in which I have sought to identify some of its fallacies and misconceptions.  But I gratefully acknowledge both his trackback and the gallantly neutral reference and link in his post to this piece, despite the fact that I take the opposite view to his of the rights and wrongs of the issue.



  14. Brian,
    Thank you for the mention. I have replied on my own blog.
    On a thoroughly tangential point I might mention that, while vengeance cannot be ruled out as a factor in the Soviets’ desire not to release Rudolf Hess, the location of Spandau prison in West Berlin certainly was important as it gave them access to the West. The prison was guarded by each Power in turn for a month at a time.
    When I arrived in Spain in 1984 there was a considerable amount of feeling on the right here that Hess (who died in 1987) was a victim: ‘Life imprisonment for wanting peace’  was the slogan. I am not sure that releasing him would have pacified them.
    Brian writes: Thanks, Peter. I think the relevance of the Hess case, first mentioned I believe by Oliver Miles, is not so much the motives of the Soviet government in resisting pressure from the western occupying powers (US, UK and France) to release Hess on compassionate grounds before he died: I agree with what you say about those motives. The relevance to the case of Megrahi, however, lies in the enthusiasm of the United States government at the time for compassion to be shown to a major Nazi war criminal by releasing him from jail once he had become a pitiable, sick old man, as compared with the shocked condemnation of the decision of the Scottish Justice Secretary to release another dying man, also convicted of a terrible crime, on compassionate grounds, rather than insisting on keeping him in prison until he dies as Washington apparently would have wished. The parallel is not of course exact — parallels seldom are — but it’s close enough to make its point.

  15. Brian,
    I don’t think that compassion had much to do with it; the Americans didn’t like the Soviets having a toehold in the western part of the city. Also, Spandau prison was a very big building in a very crowded city, and it was used to house just one prisoner. As soon as Hess died, it was demolished and the site was redeveloped.

  1. 2 September, 2009

    Releasing the bomber…

    The root of the problems surrounding the release of the Lockerbie bomber Megrahi lies in the UK’s medieval constitution, under which ministers take decisions in the name of the Crown, and on far too many things. Thus we have peculiar……

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