I was asked recently if I agreed with the freeing of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi, the Libyan behind the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, which resulted in the deaths of 270 people in total. This isn’t exactly brand new news but since I haven’t blogged recently I thought I’d put my answer here.
My answer is: yes. I would have released the bomber.
But before I explain why, let me lay the groundwork for my answer.
Justice is the concept of holding man accountable for his actions and treating him in a way that is congruous with the merit or value of his actions. It means that a man should be praised when praise-worthy and condemned when a villain.
Ayn Rand said about justice “that your moral appraisal is the coin paying men for their virtues or vices, and this payment demands of you as scrupulous an honor as you bring to financial transactions—that to withhold your contempt from men’s vices is an act of moral counterfeiting, and to withhold your admiration from their virtues is an act of moral embezzlement—that to place any other concern higher than justice is to devaluate your moral currency and defraud the good in favor of the evil, since only the good can lose by a default of justice and only the evil can profit—and that the bottom of the pit at the end of that road, the act of moral bankruptcy, is to punish men for their virtues and reward them for their vices, that that is the collapse to full depravity.”
I’ve highlighted in bold what I think is important here. Justice demands that a man be praised and allow to fully enjoy the rewards of his virtuous activity. It also demands that a villain, a criminal, a violator of Rights, is held fully accountable for his actions and they are denounced as nothing less than evil. He is then to be punished according to the severity of his actions.
There is no middle ground here; we are dealing with absolutes. Either a man deserves his rewards or he doesn’t. Either a criminal deserves his punishment or he doesn’t; and just as a man who deserves his rewards deserves them in full, so a violator of Rights deserves his punishment, in full.
Justice demands no less. It is a travesty of justice and a slap in the face of morality to punish a moral man for his good actions. It is just as bad to absolve a criminal of their evil actions. It is an act of moral and intellectual cowardice. It is the equivalent of saying to the good man “you have acted with uncompromised rationality and virtue and achieved great success, and because of that, you will be stripped of some of your values.” And to the evil man: “you have acted with premeditation to deliberately violate the Rights of another innocent person, but I will only partly punish you.” The former describes our current welfare state and the latter our system of Law. The first statement exemplifies altruism and the latter mercy.
Mercy is to justice like faith is reason. Both words can be synonymous with their more innocent relatives; faith can casually mean hope, confidence, or trust. But philosophically and religiously faith means belief in spite of reason. Similarly, just as mercy can mean tolerance of forgiveness, in ethics it means leniency in spite of what is actually merited, in spite of justice. It is the moral declaration: “you do not deserve my act of good will, of forgiveness, of leniency, but I shall give it anyway.” Needless to say, this is commonly considered an act of grace or virtue. In reality, it is the exact opposite. Judicially, it is worse than sticking your head in the sand; it is the act of sticking justice in the sand, as if justice – doing what is right! – needed tempering!
Now, imagine yourself planning to smuggle a bomb on board an aircraft filled with innocent people of many nationalities, genders, backgrounds, heights, shapes, sizes, each of which is an individual human being with the most fundamental (and only) Right: the Right to Life. Imagine smiling with glee as you envisage the terror when that explosion first rips through the aircraft and the passengers start struggling for air as the plane depressurises. As a victim, imagine the speechless and breathless horror of looking out the window and seeing the ground move closer by the second, and feel the aircraft in free-fall, knowing that you are going to die, that your life is about to end, and everything you have ever done and ever will do will be reduced to ash in a fireball, and there is nothing you can do to stop it. Imagine looking into the eyes of your lover, your friend, or your child, as you wordlessly exchange an encyclopaedia of thoughts and memories in an instant, as you burn their image into your head for the last time, as the tears stream down both your faces. Perhaps in all this, they asked: WHY? Was it an accident? Did something malfunction? No. Another human being like you deliberately made this happen; plotted and planned to bring this about; who knowingly wanted to end all life on this plane and your only crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
One life or 270 it’s all the same; it’s life. The Right to which was consciously violated. That it happened in possibly the post terrifying way imaginable makes the suffering worse, but it would have been no different had the 270 been murdered peacefully in their sleep. And this is because the standard of right and wrong is not and never will be: suffering. It is this one thing only: the life of a rational being.
And now imagine that 21 years later, the very system that exists for the purpose of protecting Rights and ensuring justice is carried out, decides that the murderer’s suffering of prostate cancer cannot be allowed to continue, and then he DESERVES compassion because he has three months left to live, and allows him the FREEDOM to leave and return home, no doubt to a hero’s welcome. Deserves compassion, why? Deserves freedom, why? Freedom is a Right of those with Rights. A murderer has no Rights.
The worst part is that the Scottish Government, who decided that this despicable individual deserves compassion, actually believes that he does! But by what moral standard can they arrive at this judgement? The one mentioned above: suffering. Suffering is the standard. It is the idea that people deserve something based on what they need or want or feel, regardless of the facts of reality. This morality says that the suffering of one person imposes a moral obligation on others. ‘He was suffering’, they say. ‘He only had months to live’, they say. ‘We MUST do something’. What about justice? What about right and wrong? What about sticking to our principles?
So my answer to the question is: yes, the Lockerbie bomber should have been released…
…on the way home, from the aeroplane, at 50,000 feet, into the atmosphere.