But is it wrong when we do it?
The recent release, on compassionate grounds, of Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, the Libyan agent convicted of planting the bomb on Pan AM flight 103 that claimed the lives of 270 innocent men, women and children has created something of a diplomatic furor, with U.S. commentators and public officials loudly decrying the Scottish government’s decision. FBI director Robert Muller sums up much of that criticism in a letter to Scottish Justice minister Kenny McAskill published on the website of the Federal Bureau of Investigations that notes:
Over the years I have been a prosecutor, and recently as the Director of the FBI, I have made it a practice not to comment on the actions of other prosecutors, since only the prosecutor handling the case has all the facts and the law before him in reaching the appropriate decision.
Your decision to release Megrahi causes me to abandon that practice in this case. I do so because I am familiar with the facts, and the law, having been the Assistant Attorney General in charge of the investigation and indictment of Megrahi in 1991. And I do so because I am outraged at your decision, blithely defended on the grounds of “compassion.”
Your action in releasing Megrahi is as inexplicable as it is detrimental to the cause of justice. Indeed your action makes a mockery of the rule of law. Your action gives comfort to terrorists around the world who now believe that regardless of the quality of the investigation, the conviction by jury after the defendant is given all due process, and sentence appropriate to the crime, the terrorist will be freed by one man’s exercise of “compassion.” Your action rewards a terrorist even though he never admitted to his role in this act of mass murder and even though neither he nor the government of Libya ever disclosed the names and roles of others who were responsible.
In a curious irony, the same day that Mueller wrote the above letter, one of the men who was most directly responsible for the murder of between 347 to 504 innocent men, women and children, in a separate incident some thirty years ago, offered up an apology for his actions:
William Calley, the former Army lieutenant convicted on 22 counts of murder in the infamous My Lai Massacre in Vietnam, publicly apologized for the first time this week while speaking in Columbus.
“There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened that day in My Lai,” Calley told members of the Kiwanis Club of Greater Columbus on Wednesday. His voice started to break when he added, “I feel remorse for the Vietnamese who were killed, for their families, for the American soldiers involved and their families. I am very sorry.”
Lt. William Calley was the leader of Charlie Company, the group of soldiers that spearheaded the assault on the village of My Lai on March 16, 1968, and which carried out the massacre of some 347 to 504 innocent civilians in that village. The exact number of civilians killed will probably never be known, but the conservative U.S. Army estimate is the lower of the two figures, while the memorial at the site lists the names of 504 killed.
It is worth noting the curious juxtaposition of Calley’s recent expression of remorse with the furor surrounding the al-Megrahi release, if for no other reason than to note the similarity in legal punishment that both ultimately received. Calley was sentenced to life in prison, but wound up serving only 3 1/2 years of house arrest. al-Megrahi was also sentenced to life in prison, but served only eight years for his crime.
Both these cases present troubling examples of men who committed mass murder in their country’s name. Calley did so in war time, though it is hard to see that as an excuse for the murder of hundreds of men, women and children. And indeed, a review of the events that led up to the Pan AM 103 bombing shows that the U.S. was engaged in what could easily be termed a low-intensity war with Libya, with a series of military tit for tats, including a U.S. bombing raid of Libya that killed 40 people, among them the 15 month old adopted daughter of Mohmamr Kaddafi, and wounded scores including two the Libyan leader’s sons.
Despite the similarity in judicial outcomes, one stark difference remains between these two cases: Calley has thus far spent over 30 years a free man. al-Megrahi is expected to die of his cancer within a few weeks or months. It is very likely that had al-Megrahi not been taken ill with cancer, that he would have served several decades more in prison.
So what do we take away from all this? There is a clear lesson here: al-Megrahi’s crimes are execrable and unforgivable. The taking of innocent life can never be justified, and the anger of the families of his victims is quite understandable. However, as a nation with a history of slapping our own war criminals on the wrist for similar acts, our cries of “injustice” once again, have a hollow, hypocritical ring to them.
Serolf Divad spends his time thinking about how the past is so very much different from today… except when it isn’t.