The hero walked down the stairway from the plane, his hand raised high in triumph before a nationwide television audience. He was home, and jubilation was proclaimed in his native land.
Some hero. Some triumph.
The hero was the convicted mass murderer Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, found by a British court to be guilty of helping to plan the 1988 midair explosion that destroyed a Pan American jetliner over Lockerbie, Scotland. All 259 people on board died, as did 11 more on the ground who were killed by falling debris. Megrahi, a Libyan intelligence agent, was working undercover at Libya's national airline. The attack on innocent people resulted in years of economic sanctions and international isolation for Libya, ruled since 1969 by the odious Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.
The Lockerbie bombing was one of the most high-profile attacks ever on civil aviation, joining the mid-air bombing of an Air India jetliner, the mid-air destruction of a Korean Airlines plane that was shot down by a Soviet fighter and a handful of others. It was later eclipsed in sheer loss of life by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States with hijacked jetliners, but remains infamous and is one of the well-remembered events that has joined travel and terror in the public mind. This is especially so in the U.S.; 189 of the Lockerbie dead were Americans.
Megrahi's release this week from a Scottish prison appears to be the result of swirling political headwinds and the complex calculations associated with them. Among these are the frankly juvenile desire of the Scottish National Party government to thumb its nose at British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's Labor government in London; the maneuverings of UK oil giant BP to get back into Libya, start drilling and start making money now that sanctions are no more; and the misdirected intention of the Scottish government to show compassion to a sick man; Megrahi is said to be suffering from terminal prostate cancer.
Yet, it can be argued that compassion has already been shown to him. For one thing, Megrahi got a trial, something terrorists routinely deny their victims. He was treated humanely in prison, another compassionate measure. The American relatives of the dead, robustly and rightly backed by the Obama administration, asked only that Megrahi be kept in prison for the rest of his days; they didn't demand that he leave this world. Not even this scrap of decency was shown to them by Scottish authorities, now scrambling for political cover after the entirely predictable jubilant welcome given to the conquering hero when he landed at a military airport in Tripoli.
Some of the British victims' families were not convinced that Megrahi committed the crime for which he was convicted, and the man, himself, has maintained that he is innocent. Most people who have studied the case disagree, including the Scottish justice minister who freed Megrahi.
The Lockerbie bombing has caused long-term damage to travel and tourism and has poisoned relations between Libya and much of the world. This latest sharp twist makes it that much more harmful. It's an unfortunate turn of events, and the officials who put this man on a jet plane to enjoy a safe flight home should have known better.