08.20.09

The Lockerbie Outrage Gap

America’s reaction to the Pan Am bomber’s release has been radically different than Britain’s, showing just how wide the trans-Atlantic gulf remains on attitudes about justice.

Before departing for vacation Friday, the president called Libya’s warm reception for the freed Lockerbie bomber "highly objectionable." Katty Kay says America’s reaction to the Pan Am bomber’s release has been radically different than Britain’s, showing just how wide the trans-Atlantic gulf remains on attitudes about justice.

It is very easy to sympathize with the relatives of those who died in the attack on Pan Am Flight 103. It's clear why they feel so outraged that the only man imprisoned for the deaths of their loved ones is now free in Libya, having returned effectively to a hero's welcome. The pictures of Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi being cheered off the plane in Tripoli tonight are particularly galling.

What's politically and culturally less explicable is the gulf in reaction over his release between the U.S. and Britain, even in Lockerbie itself. BBC correspondents who've spent the day in the town (which will forever be defined as the sight of the largest mass murder on British soil) report that most people there agree with the Scottish justice minister's decision to release al-Megrahi, who is suffering from terminal cancer, on compassionate grounds. And even the relatives of those Brits who died supported his release.

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The overwhelming majority of his 270 victims were American, but 11 people, two entire families in fact, did die on the ground in Scotland, and one might expect, in Lockerbie if nowhere else, outrage similar to that expressed by American relatives. But not so. Perhaps it's because Brits, with their experience in Northern Ireland, are, more inured to terrorism, whereas, before Lockerbie, Americans had never really been exposed to this kind of attack, and so it became a watershed event that shattered America's sense of invincibility. Perhaps it’s that more in Britain question al-Megrahi's guilt to start with. Or is it just a more confident American sense of wrong and right?

The phone lines between Washington and Edinburgh have rarely run hotter, and after the jubilant scenes in Tripoli, Scotland’s decision looks even shakier.

It's not entirely clear to me why the outrage gap is so pronounced on al-Megrahi's release, but it definitely is, and I don't think it's just a question of numbers. The people of Lockerbie seem to support Kenny MacAskill, the justice minister, in his view that the West's identity rests on mercy as well as justice, and that even in the case of a mass murderer that value still applies. As one of the residents of Lockerbie told my colleague, "We just don't see these things in black and white."

It was sort of intriguing to watch the dour Scottish minister using the kind of spiritual language that comes so awkwardly to British politicians but is virtually required of their U.S. counterparts. MacAskill said that al-Megrahi was returning to a "sentence imposed by a higher power." It was clearly a not-so-subtle attempt to pacify his American critics.

It didn't work. At all. The U.S. government has joined the families in slamming the Scottish decision. From Obama on down, America is furious. The phone lines between Washington and Edinburgh have rarely run hotter, and after the jubilant scenes in Tripoli, Scotland’s decision looks even shakier. But the president is vulnerable to the charge that America looks the weaker today. Washington appealed to the British government not to release al-Megrahi and asked the Libyan government not to treat him like a hero, and was rebuffed on both counts.

Every now and again, a story reveals a surprising trans-Atlantic gulf. The release of al-Megrahi is one of them. I cannot even begin to imagine how it feels to have lost a loved one to terrorism, how the anger and sense of total injustice must burn for years. The people of Lockerbie, however, appear to have put their faith in our capacity for compassion. I fear on this there is no mid-Atlantic position where both sides can meet.

Katty Kay is the Washington correspondent for BBC World News America. She is the author, along with Claire Shipman, of Womenomics: Write Your Own Rules for Success.