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Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Realpolitik versus Conspicuous Compassion

The death of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, almost three years after his release on ‘compassionate’ grounds by the Scottish Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill, does not bring this sorry chapter to anything even resembling closure.

So many questions remain unanswered. We are still not clear about any influence that Gordon Brown’s administration may, or may not, have had on the decision to release al-Megrahi, but we do know that his release -infamously celebrated at that squalid reception at Tripoli airport in 2009- not only infuriated many of our friends and allies, but insulted the memory of the 270 folk massacred in the skies over Lockerbie. The deal to free al-Megrahi, along with the decision of his legal team to abandon their appeal for a retrial, scuppered our chances of getting to the truth of this disgracefully unresolved story.

The best (that is, the least bad) explanation for al-Megrahi’s release is that some kind of deal was done with Libya. Realpolitik is a fact of life and it is by no means unusual for politicians to make accommodations with undesirables before discreetly washing their hands. It’s not difficult to imagine that a ‘reformed’ Colonel Gaddafi, perceived to have come in from the cold by renouncing the use of weapons of mass destruction, might have been viewed by both the Westminster and Holyrood administrations as a potentially useful ally, particularly over energy supplies and counter-terrorist initiatives. But if that was the thinking at the time, events since then have made it clear that our leaders were backing the wrong horse.

Some have argued that the decision to release al-Megrahi was not attributable to realpolitik at all, but down to a widely-held notion that the convicted man was innocent, or at least not wholly responsible for the massacre. If, however, the Justice Minister had evidence that the conviction was unsound, the request for a retrial should have been granted and the case should have gone back to court.

But let’s be charitable and take the ‘compassionate’ argument at face value.

If we concede that the Scottish Government had the right to release al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds, the most it should have been able to do was to allow the prisoner to be transferred to a Libyan jail. If MacAskill believed the prisoner was dying and also believed that this dying man -whatever he was guilty of- should have had the right to die in his own country, he should have sent him home with certain conditions attached.

Or then again, perhaps MacAskill -in his compassion- considered that ten years in jail was an adequate sentence for the murder of 270 people. It is certainly not for us to judge, because, as the Justice Minister stated at the time: “Mr al-Megrahi now faces a sentence imposed by a higher power.”

We should, therefore, defer to this higher power and accept the ‘compassionate’ explanation for the release of the convicted terrorist. And in doing so, we should recognise that it would be uncharitable to dwell on the notion that there can be no more fraudulent or nauseating spectacle in modern life than the conspicuous display of compassion. Nor should we succumb to the temptation to speculate about the psychology of political leaders who make decisions that are based, not on old-fashioned notions of right and wrong, but on whether or not they will make them feel good about themselves. Because that, of course, would not be real leadership; it would be an abnegation of leadership, a pathetic admixture of personal therapy and advanced PR.

Some might say that by playing that ‘compassionate’ card, the Scottish Government embarrassed themselves and the nation; it could even be said that they catastrophically undermined the good reputation of the Scottish judicial system. Those images of Saltires being waved as al-Megrahi received his hero’s welcome at Tripoli airport will probably be a matter of shame for generations to come.

But at least we can feel good about our sense of compassion.


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