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.

PFC Bergdahl’s disturbing video

It was  pretty disheartening to open up today’s newspaper and read about Army Pfc.  Bowe Bergdahl of Halley, Idaho, who for nearly three weeks has been in the custody of  Taliban-affiliated militants on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. His captors have reportedly threatened to kill Bergdahl if the United States does not withdraw  its forces from Iraq – an extremely hefty demand, considering our presence there is now running on eight years and many billions of dollars invested in counter-terrorist actions and local development.

A video released by his captors shows the soldier in relatively good health, though he demands that the U.S. remove its forces from Afghanistan, calling their efforts their futile. Bergdahl laments that he’ll never see kiss his girlfriend again, just the sort of publicity his captors are looking for.

The 23-year-old, ballet dancer turned soldier appears to be in a very tenuous situation, barring some type of drastic military commando mission. The prospects for his safe release are very slim. Even nearly a decade after the brutal Taliban government was toppled, they are still very much a force to be reckoned with, particularly because Pakistan is politically much weaker than it was when we invaded.

It’s said to think of what may happen to Bergdahl. His family released a statement through the Pentagon over the weekend asking for people to pray for him. He’ll need all the prayers he can get if he is to make it out of there alive. Although I’m not sure I believe there’s anything real or lasting we can provide to the disparate people of Afghanistan, this man certainly does not deserve the indignity of being taken a hostage. Because the United States generally doesn’t negotiate with hostage takers, it’s unlikely much can be done diplomatically to free him.

I hate violence, but I suppose if it takes Army Rangers banding through windows and shooting men to get him back, I suppose that’s alright. It’s hard to imagine any type of rational negotiation that would be able to impress upon these guys to let this kid go.

There certainly is a big divide between us and the tribal-based Muslim world that is pinched between the former Soviet Union and the Middle East. We have a very hard time communicating them and have a different set of values that is hard to navigate, even with guns, tanks and jet fighters. Not to make judgments on the hard work of American and NATO armed forces, it appears that so little can be achieved that will last a long time.

It’s sad to think that this young guy may never see his girlfriend again or be back at home in Idaho with his family. I’m amazed at how serious some people take certain conflicts that they’d be willing to snuff out the lives of others with so little thought. Ultimately, killing PFC Bergdahl will do nothing to improve the lot of Afghanistan. It will only add to the tension. On the other hand, our killing Taliban people to get Bergdahl probably wont help much either.