Friday 21 August 2009

Al-Megrahi - a follow up

Now that the decision has been taken this post looks at the immediate reactions. While the American relatives and the US government have strongly criticised the decision, it is interesting to note that this is not front page news in the USA. Apparently most of the main newspapers carry the story on inside pages. So perhaps the opposition in America is not as strong or as uniform as we are led to believe. Further confirmation of this comes from a brief perusal of the blogsphere in the USA, or at least some of the progressive blogs. As far as I could see only one blog mentioned the decision at all and that was in complementary terms. This post was found on the Talking Points Memo (TPM) group blog.

Justice With Compassion

08.20.09 -- 2:43PM

By David Kurtz

I want to set aside for a moment the issue of whether the terminally ill bomber of Pan Am Flight 103 should be released to die at home in Libya. Instead watch Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill explain his decision to set Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi free.

TPM Reader MK flagged it for me and writes:

I would simply ask whether and when we can remember -- can we even imagine -- a public official in American life speaking with this kind of eloquence, thoughtfulness, and most of all courage? The public discussion of crime and punishment -- not to mention terror -- have become so toxic in our country that I expect that you would hesitate before posting this, even if you were so inclined.
It is worth watching, though, if only to remember what we as individuals are capable of contributing to public life, and to recognize the compassion and the reverence for all human life that we have the capacity to practice collectively.

While we share a common legal tradition with the UK, our own legal system increasingly seems like a moribund vestige of our common history, rather than a self-sustaining creation which we continue to ratify and renew. On a gloomy day, it's hard for me to envision the U.S. adopting the Anglo-American system today if we were starting from scratch. As it is, our legal system labors under enormous tension between who are now and the values we once idealized. MacAskill's statement, regardless of how you view his decision, is a living, breathing example of those legal traditions being carried forward in practice, not merely as totems from another time.

So perhaps Scotland's good name has not been damaged by the decision. In the rest of the world the decision seems to have attracted very little special attention. While all the main online editions of the European press have covered the story, very few have done more than just report the decision. The Suddeutsche Zeitung carried a very strange opinion piece entitled Realpolitik in a kilt. The piece claimed that the decision was all about access to Libya's oil and was in fact co-ordinated with both London and Washington. Talk about conspiracy theories! Could be true though it is hard to see the SNP willingly being a party to this. The Corriere della Sera also carried a very brief opinion piece along similar lines – there was more to this than meets the eye and the more is Libyan oil. Interesting to note that as far as I could see none of the European papers criticised the decision. So much for an international outcry against little Scotland.

The European press has also covered the welcoming reception for Al-Megrahi in Tripoli and though most headlines refer to Western outrage, the actual reports only mention official reaction from London and Washington. Again none of the European reports make any issue about the flying of Scottish flags. This is seen as purely a Libyan affair.

Back in the UK our beleaguered PM, Gordon Brown has been conspicuous by his silence on the decision as has all the other cabinet ministers who are still around. In Scotland the three main opposition parties have all condemned the decisions. Whilst this was only to be expected from the Tories – the political wing of the hang 'em and flog 'em brigade, the stance of the Lib Dems was somewhat surprising. Their Justice Spokesperson, whoever he is stated that while he was in favour of compassion he would have kept Al-Megrahi in prison for longer and only have let him out for the last two or three weeks of his life. What a pathetic and revolting response. Further evidence of the complete irrelevance of the Lib Dems to Scottish politics. More nonsense from New Labour in Scotland. Their leader in the Parliament, the aptly named Iain Gray, who refused to say what he would have done before Kenny Macaskill made his decision has now rushed out to say that he would not have granted release on compassionate grounds. One has the very strong suspicion that Mr Gray has no independent view of his own and was determined to oppose whatever decision the Scottish government came to. Hence his unwillingness to say anything beforehand. As to why New Labour would have opposed compassionate release this is apparently because Al-Megrahi was convicted of the worst terrorist atrocity in our history, the mass murder of 270 people. Not sure is this means that if only 200 people had been killed he would have been entitled to compassion. Or is it 150 killed or 100 killed? Seems to me that Iain Gray and New Labour have no idea what compassion is actually about. New Labour MSPs and MPs have also claimed that Kenny MacAskill’s conduct has damaged the Scottish Justice system and, in turn, Scotland’s international reputation. Judging from the muted international reaction mentioned above, this is again New Labour talking nonsense.

With the media there has been a more mixed reaction. The right wing and gutter press have uniformly condemned the decision and many have used this to bring out the usual suspects to take yet another dig at the existence of the Scottish Parliament. Some people have never accepted the re-establishment of our Parliament and will use any opportunity, even something as tragic as Lockerbie to attack the institution. Again most of these papers make wild assertions as how damaging this will be to Scotland's reputation. The prize for this type of article must go to the Daily Mail's Hamish Macdonell who in a piece entitled How the SNP turned allies into enemies, goes on at some length about how angry the Americans are and what damage they could do to the Scottish economy in revenge. One is tempted to respond, with friends like this who needs enemies? However as most Americans don't seem to be much bothered or even that interested in the affair his claim is a tad over the top. As was his final point in which he complained about the absence of First Minister Alex Salmond from the scene, alleging that Salmond was unhappy with the decision and leaving Macaskill to take all the flak. Just a pity then that Macdonell's article appeared on the very morning in which Alex Salmond was all over the air waves eloquently and forcibly supporting and justifying the decision. Don't these reporters ever do even minimal research? I guess not.

Thankfully the more liberal papers did come out strongly in support of the decision, including the Independent in London. Curiously the Guardian did not cover the decision in its editorial, but there was good reporting in the news section. However both the main Scottish titles, the Herald and the Scotsman had strong editorials supporting the decision which may go some way to justify Macaskill's claim that “In Scotland, we are a people who pride ourselves on our humanity. It is viewed as a defining characteristic of Scotland and the Scottish people.” Clearly not all Scots share this view, just as not all Americans are opposed to the decision. But Macaskill in his decision went to the heart of the matter – compassion is not dependent on liking the person. As he eloquently put it, “The perpetration of an atrocity and outrage cannot and should not be a basis for losing sight of who we are, the values we seek to uphold, and the faith and beliefs by which we seek to live. Mr Al-Megrahi did not show his victims any comfort or compassion. They were not allowed to return to the bosom of their families to see out their lives, let alone their dying days. No compassion was shown by him to them. But, that alone is not a reason for us to deny compassion to him and his family in his final days. Our justice system demands that judgement be imposed but compassion be available. Our beliefs dictate that justice be served, but mercy be shown. Compassion and mercy are about upholding the beliefs that we seek to live by, remaining true to our values as a people, no matter the severity of the provocation or the atrocity perpetrated.”

Well done Kenny Macaskill!

1 comment:

  1. I also agree with Macaskill's decision to release Al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds.

    I wonder if part of the mixed reaction is because of the distinct reasons that are given for punishing people at all in Scotland and in the UK?

    There seem to be three main reasons for imprisoning people. The first is that they should function as a deterrent to others. The second is that they pose a danger to others. The third is that they should be locked up because they have done a bad thing. It seems that these three underlying reasons aren't applied consistently in punishing people, maybe because our systems of punishment have evolved gradually and in quite a piecemeal way. I think in cases where crimes arouse strong and complex emotions (such as Al-Megrahi, but also people like Myra Hindley), then perhaps it is more likely that emotional responses determine the reason we will select that best suits the emotion that we experience.

    Bearing this in mind, and although I accept that our justice system is based on an impartiality that perhaps can't be had without the objectivity it brings (although I'm not so convinced about this), I don't know how I would feel about Al-Megrahi's compassionate release if I did not believe that his trial was not conducted in the impartial and fair way that trials are supposed to be.

    I do think it raises the interesting question of the extent to which we punish people simply because they have done bad things. After all, it can hardly be the case that a prison sentence will stop prospective terrorists, or that Al-Magrahi is a danger to the public. So, keeping people in prison beyond the point where they remain a danger to the public seems to be every bit as unjust as locking someone up because they've done a bad thing. The more that's understood about the reasons that people have for committing dreadful acts, then the more support can be offered if people want to think/act in different, less dreadful, ways.

    On the question of justice, I think the question of whether to release Al-Megrahi should have been a fully judicial one, and not one made by a politician. I was disappointed at the response of both the Lib Dems and Labour, who seemed to oppose the decision for political reasons. But maybe this is to be expected. I think Macaskill made the right decision for the right reasons, and it's a shame that his attempts to distingish between political and judicial roles wasn't respected by the other parties.