Mike Semple Piggot, aka “CharonQC” has a post on his blog critical of the legal logic employed by Scotland in releasing and repatriating convicted Pan Am 103 bomber Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi far earlier than his sentence otherwise would have allowed for. Having invited comments, I posted the following (with a few edits), suggesting that the role of retribution in justice has been seriously overlooked in this matter, and thus explains why America and Americans are so upset:
I should say here that I am an American. I should also say that I believe myself to be much less a retributist than many other of my fellow citizens. The view from abroad of American attitudes towards crime and sentencing may be accurate, but I myself am rarely among the “string ‘em up” ilk. (Further, I believe that this current administration is also much less so than their Republican brethren.) Philosophically I much prefer to focus on the rehabilitative aspects of sentencing than the more vengeful. And yet even my sensitivities are offended by this turn of events.
I point you first to this article about local reaction to the release in The Record, a newspaper for northern New Jersey, a suburb of New York City (where, for the record, I grew up and was living at the time of the bombing). Remember that Flight 103, an American-flagged carrier full of Americans, was on its way back to New York. New York may be this large global metropolis, an entry point into America’s vastness, but for many of us it is the final stop. New York is our “home town.” When terrorism strikes New York it of course strikes America and the world, but for us it’s a kick in our gut, an injury to the heart of our local community.
It’s a wound that needs salving. And that’s where the retributive argument comes in re: Lockerbie, because for all intents and purposes, it has not been.
Or maybe we thought it was, but now it feels like the sutures are getting ripped out. We trusted Scotland to represent our interests in its proceedings against al-Megrahi. We HAD to. Libya refused, despite penalty of sanction, to extradite him to the US to face charges for the harm he was alleged to have caused us. We were faced with the practical choice of Scottish justice, or no justice at all. So we took the leap of faith in believing Scotland could adequately stand in for us in prosecuting where we could not.
It would appear we were wrong. Because even without condemning the Scottish decision to commute the sentence (perhaps it really is consistent with Scottish law?) it shows that the only community capable to seeking redress for its own injury is the injured community itself. No one else can speak for it, for it isn’t just the result that matters (guilt or innocence, sentence or pardon) but the process of reaching that result. The very exercise of causing a defendant to answer to the aggrieved community, even if then exonerated, is what exorcises the injury. Moreover, even if America had on its own behalf reached the same result — a sentence commuted “in mercy” — it would have been OUR mercy to give. Instead, here Scotland has stepped in and unilaterally granted it on our behalf, yet against our will.
I hear the arguments that the early release and repatriation is the Scottish way and consistent with the Scottish legal ethic. That may be, but Scotland was in an unusual position of needing to advocate for more than just itself. It certainly had its own interests at stake, but it also had America’s, and Scotland’s ease in canceling out the result of the proceeding America entrusted it to reach seems an abrogation of its commensurate duty to this other community.
And not without consequence. Qaddafi now looks presciently brilliant to have manipulated the situation to get the trial in Scotland in the first place. What a “compromise” that turned out to be. What state sponsor of terrorism would ever refuse such a compromise in the future? But what chance is there for America to ever accede to such an arrangement again? The world often complains about America’s willingness to reach across the world to avenge its own injuries. But with this state of affairs America is learning that it may have no other choice.