Abdel Baset al-Megrahi is a 57-year-old former Libyan intelligence officer who was convicted in 2001 by a panel of Scottish judges sitting in a special court in the Netherlands of 270 counts of murder for his part in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.
The plane crashed on Dec. 21, 1988, after the detonation of a bomb concealed in its luggage compartment. Most of the victims were American.
Al-Megrahi was sentenced to life imprisonment -- his co-defendant was acquitted and freed -- but was sent home last week by the Scottish government on compassionate grounds. The convict has prostate cancer and Scottish doctors estimate he has less than three months to live.
The Scots insist "compassionate release" is a regular feature of their justice system when a prisoner is near death. Of the 31 applications filed over the past decade, 24 prisoners have been freed on compassionate grounds in Scotland, including al-Megrahi. Another seven applications were turned down because the medical evidence did not support the claim.
Scots officials say they were promised al-Megrahi's return to Libya would be low key: Instead he was granted a hero's welcome, his warm greeting by dictator Moammar Gadhafi televised to the nation, which is at least of some value in gauging the general esteem in which a cowardly murderer of defenseless women and children is held in the historic land of the Barbary pirates.
Some may hold the evidence that al-Megrahi arranged the purchase of the bomb's detonator is not irrefutable. But the celebrations of dictator Gadhafi and the Libyan crowds do not exactly match a contention that they're "just not sure" he did it.
Britain scrapped a trade visit to Libya by Prince Andrew. (Heavens, does this mean a firm letter may follow?) The British government has also been fiercely denying claims that al-Megrahi's release was intended to boost business ties between Britain and Libya, which has vast oil reserves.
Considerable outrage -- particularly in the United States -- has greeted the release. This has now led to concerns that the tempest may affect plans by Scotland's nationalist administration to hold a referendum on full independence from Britain.
Peter Lynch, senior lecturer in politics at the University of Stirling, agrees the controversy over al-Megrahi's release could imperil that project. "If Scotland were to be independent, it would need the support of the international community, of the United States," he said.
Scotland is indeed its own country, with its own justice system, not identical either to the English or the American. Under their long-held respect for self-determination, Americans are likely to favor as high a level of Scottish sovereignty as voters there desire and can be pragmatically maintained, regardless of Americans' well-justified emotional response to this incident.
What may be more deserving of comment is the rather fatuous assertion that -- by showing compassion to a terminally ill prisoner -- the West shows we are somehow morally superior to the kind of nations that will cheer scruffy misfits who blow up airliners and buildings full of innocent civilians.
We are indeed morally superior to these wretches, though we should not delude ourselves that they see our careful titration of justice as anything but decadent weakness.
The West showed its moral superiority decades ago, by declining to land Marines on the shores of Libya in response to the destruction of Pan Am Flight 103.
Frankly, it might have done more good -- witness the way the thug Gadhafi came around and started "playing nice" after some F-111s responded to Libyan-backed terror attacks by bombing his palace (no thanks to the cowering Spaniards and French, who refused use of their air space), and especially after the United States made it clear that when we said we'd invade Iraq and remove Saddam Hussein if he didn't stop fooling around with U.N. weapons inspectors ... we actually meant it.