The release of Abdelbaset Ali Al-Megrahi

It’s an image to that me is as indelible as any published in the media during my lifetime. The cockpit of a jumbo jet liner laying on its side on a Scottish field like a  discarded, crushed soda can. The words Maid of the Seas,  still legible below the cockpit windows, and despite a six-mile plunge, the right side wiper was still intact. Absent from the photograph is any evidence of the rest of the aircraft, which was in pieces scattered in and around the village.

It turns out wreckage from the downed airliner wasn’t the only thing scattered about the area. The bodies of the passengers stayed around town for days as investigators scrambled to get vital information to piece together as best as they could how PanAm Flight 103, from London to New York City had suddenly exploded and come apart.

I’ve been thinking about this photograph a bit lately, as the Scottish courts just days ago released the only person ever convicted in the Flight 103 bombing, Lybian citizen Abdelbaset Ali Al-Megrahi, who was serving a life sentence for his part in coordinating the placement of explosives in the jet, which went down just days before Christmas in 1988.

The cockpit photo is something I’ll always remember. I believe in fourth grade I was given a World Almanac by my father for 1990, and one of the photographs in the center section was this one. Because the incident had happened so close to the New Year, it was was considered a significant event for 1989, as it was at the time considered one of the most brazen and deadly terrorist attacks carried out.

It would take more than a decade before anyone would be convicted and then only one person. More than 270 people on board and nearly a dozen on the ground were killed.

The horror that the families must have felt at learning of their loved one’s deaths during the holidays must have been horrific, second only to the terrifying deathes that the victims endured, many of whom are believed to have survived the rapid depressurized decent until impact. That to me seems absolutely horrible.

This week, Al-Megrahi was released because he has terminal prostate cancer, which may only allow him to live for three more months. Under Scottish law, a person with a terminal illness may be released.

The families of the victims are predictably and understandably upset that Al Megrahi  has been let go, and deported back to Lybia, where he received a hero’s welcome.

I guess I’m torn about it. Although I don’t think criminal courts should be required to let anyone go who has been convicted and sentence to a crime – regardless of their health – I think it is a mark of the underlying decency of the West that one of our courts would consider such a move, offering some bit of mercy to someone with a terminal illness. Personally, I don’t know if I would have done it if I were a judge, but I somehow don’t think the Scottish judge who made the release decision did so without thinking about it.

It’s a marked difference in some senses between the West and the Arab world, that our legal system would consider giving this man his last three months out of a cell. Somehow I don’t think that under nationalist dictatorship of Mohammed Gaddafi, there would be as much mercy given.

Still, that will be of little comfort to the families who have little to claim from this tragedy but justice.