22 August 2009

The compassionate, the merciful

The Scottish legal system has disgraced itself with the release of Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi.

The Scottish justice minister explained his reasons. The notion that a convict should be allowed to go home to die implies that there is only one agenda at work here: that of the justice system that wants to appear merciful, to leaven any reputation for brutality in that system, and which yields to the power of death as greater than any it can impose. Traditionally, a dying convict has no power to initiate further violence against the society that has incarcerated him, no power to do anything but provide comfort to a family burdened not only with shame but with grief.

Unlike other dying convicts, al-Megrahi does have power to initiate further violence against the society (and that type of society, using Scotland as an exemplar of Western society) that has incarcerated him. He is a symbol that a man can kill hundreds of people and still enjoy the perceived benefits of a Muslim burial in a Muslim country. This symbolism can and probably will inspire others to do what he did, do something monstrous in (and, I dare to venture, counterproductive to) the name of Islam.

The feeble protests by President Obama and the families of Lockerbie victims cast light on the fallacy that al-Megrahi has been disempowered, or that keeping him incarcerated was the greater indictment than to let him slip away, even in such a physically enfeebled state. The expressions of "sincere sympathy" from him were totally obliterated by the cheering goons at Tripoli airport.
“He’s getting away with it, that’s exactly what I thought,” said Rosemary Wolfe, whose step-daughter Miriam was killed in the bombing and who watched Mr. Megrahi’s departure unfold on television Thursday.

“It was a helpless, hopeless feeling. He’s going back to his family but Miriam will never be able to come back to us,” she said. “The fact is he’s going home to his family and our loved ones didn’t have an opportunity to do that.”

No justice system can withstand this kind of perception, in big high-profile cases nor in smaller cases repeatedly over time. It loses legitimacy from within as well as without. The quality of mercy is very definitely strain'd, it droppeth as debris from an exploded plane upon the place beneath. It is twice curst: it diminisheth him that gives and him that takes.
But a common strand among British and Americans seemed to be a sense that the Lockerbie atrocity had not been fully explained. “I would like this fellow, before he breathes his last breath to tell us the story,” said Helen Engelhardt, whose husband Tony Hawkins was killed on the plane. “We need the truth. We need to know what really happened.”

This is a key feature of modern society for which traditional notions of jurisprudence don't really cater. The traditional assumption is that there is cool, professional judgment by learned judges and counsel, and that the only other alternative is mob rule. In societies with a critical mass of educated people we know that there are ambiguities and conflicting facts; in cases like this there are secret intelligence and political factors.

Clearly the facts so far exposed about Pan Am flight 103 has been inadequate in serving anyone's interests. True, there is abundant proof that some people can't handle the truth - witness the extraordinary Birthers movement that no proof can ever dispel - but there are also examples like Australia's Victorian bushfire inquiry, which is too important to be left exclusively to the professionals.

Perhaps the very notion of a deathbed confession is a fantasy - but if not it would be wasted on the al-Megrahi family and the Libyan government.

Perhaps al-Megrahi was wrongly convicted - this is a separate issue, and if this prospect has influenced the decision to release him then it is contemptible, neither a vindication of the judicial process nor a repudiation of a misjudgment.

Justice would have been served by having al-Megrahi die in Scottish custody. His family and those concerned with Islam would not have known whether or not he spent his days munching bacon or doing other things repugnant to their faith: so be it, if you get caught offending against Western societies then that's the risk you take. Incarceration is inherently disrespectful of many aspects of the dignity of an individual, and that includes certain facets of religious expression (particularly those that appear to inspire criminal activity in the first place). To have him returned home was a vindication for criminality cloaked in Islam, and an inspiration for pinheads for whom the compassion and good works aspects of Islam is simply too difficult, or too boring.

This is a system that doesn't trust itself, one that is operating on notions that have been superseded by other, more pressing concerns. Scotland and similar societies are, because of this decision, more vulnerable to further attack - from within and without.

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