Since there is so little of it, let’s start with the good news about the release from prison and triumphant return to Libya of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, the terrorist who was supposedly serving a life sentence in a Scottish prison for his role in blowing Pan Am 103 out of the sky over Lockerbie in 1988, killing 270 people.
The good news is that many Scots, including members of parliament, were genuinely outraged by the decision of Scotland’s cabinet secretary for justice, Kenny MacAskill, to grant “compassionate release” to Megrahi, who has cancer. The same is true of Brits in general. The local press in Edinburgh and London has been chock-full of denunciation of the move and speculation about who knew and said what and when, as well as what the real motive might have been. It looks like there’s an excellent chance MacAskill’s political career is over, and if Gordon Brown needed another nail in the coffin of his effort to remain Britain’s prime minister past next June, this was one. Two cheers for righteous indignation.
The bad news, however, is the sheer amount of dysfunctionality the spectacle has put on display. It really does not bode well for those Americans, presumably including the Obama administration, who seek a stronger European partner for coping with the troubles of the wider world–let alone for aficionados of the “special relationship.”
The basic outline of the story begins with Megrahi’s October 2008 diagnosis with advanced prostate cancer. Under Scotland’s limited self-government authority, the decision on whether to grant him early release from prison on compassionate grounds was MacAskill’s. With Megrahi supposedly having three months left to live, Scottish authorities consulted the Brown government on the matter, which affirmed that the decision was Scotland’s to make. MacAskill, pronouncing himself “bound by Scottish values to release him,” sprung Megrahi on August 20. Police escorted him to a chartered jet to take him to Tripoli. Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi, who owns a $16 million mansion in a London suburb, accompanied Megrahi to Tripoli, where a cheering crowd at the airport, many waving Scottish flags, greeted him as a returning hero. He was reunited on the airplane steps with his acquitted codefendant in the bombing.
There is indeed a question of basic values here. “Scottish values” may favor compassionate release for prisoners on their death-beds; Americans don’t seem especially troubled about letting convicts die in jail. A January 2007 Bureau of Justice Statistics study notes that 12,129 inmates died in state prisons from 2001 until 2004, more than 92 percent of natural causes (6 percent were suicides and 2 percent homicides). Official European opposition to the death penalty is well known. Less well known is the European Union opposition to life sentences without parole. U.S. jurisdictions do have some provisions for compassionate release, but–and this may be a key point–they tend not to apply to convicted international terrorists who have killed hundreds of innocent people (Megrahi’s victims included 189 Americans).
Then there are the less savory allegations surrounding Megrahi’s release. Springing Megrahi was a cause célèbre for the Arab League, which maintains he is innocent. It was also a longtime project of Qaddafi’s wheeler-dealer son in London. Saif himself claimed that Megrahi’s release was always an issue in negotiations over business deals. Lord Trefgarne, the head of the Libyan British Business Council, lamenting the slow pace of oil deals, charmingly noted, “Perhaps now, with the final resolution of the Lockerbie affair, as far as the Libyans are concerned, maybe they’ll move a bit more swiftly.” Colonel Qaddafi, having flamboyantly thanked the queen, Prince Andrew, “my friend Brown,” and the Scottish authorities, promised, “This step . . . will be positively reflected in all fields of cooperation between the two countries.”
Even if there was no explicit quid pro quo, future deals consummated between British firms and the Libyan government will be seen in light of their down payment, Megrahi’s release. And while Lord Trefgarne may be right that Lockerbie is over and done with “as far as the Libyans are concerned,” it certainly is not for the families of the victims. FBI director Robert Mueller, who was assistant attorney general in charge of the Megrahi investigation in 1991, wrote a scorching letter to MacAskill: “Your action in releasing Megrahi is as inexplicable as it is detrimental to the cause of justice. Indeed your action makes a mockery of the rule of law” and “a mockery of the emotions, passions and pathos of all those affected by the Lockerbie tragedy” and “a mockery of the grief of the families.”
So perhaps we just disagree with some of our European friends over matters like compassionate release for international terrorists and the price of “cooperation” to get business deals done. The dysfunction enters elsewhere: namely, that apparently nobody could understand that releasing Megrahi, let alone letting him go home to Libya, let alone to receive a well-publicized hero’s welcome, was really a foreign policy question, and one with the potential for causing a huge disruption internationally, as it has.
The pretense, shared by the Scottish home-rule authorities and the Brown government, was that this whole affair was about whether Scotland’s justice secretary was persuaded that a prisoner in his custody would shortly die and should be released. (Questions have been raised about the three-months-to-live claim, as it happens; Megrahi was not exactly on his deathbed when he arrived triumphant in Tripoli.) But that’s not what this was about. The Brown government should have seen as much and asserted itself. London still has responsibility for U.K. foreign policy; Scotland doesn’t get to have its own. The principle of subsidiarity became a convenient excuse to do nothing.
This is a broader problem for Europe with the emergence of a model of “pooled sovereignty” involving the European Union, national governments, local jurisdictions, and semi-autonomous regions that set policy on their own. When a minor local official has final say over the release of a world-class terrorist, something has gone badly wrong. The intervention of the Brown government with Libya only to ask that Megrahi not receive a celebratory welcome was just pathetic: The problem was not the ceremony; it was the release.
The U.K. in the case of Scotland and the EU more generally in relation to national governments are in danger of creating an environment in which no one is really in charge of thinking about the international implications of local decisions. That’s the path to fecklessness on a continental scale.