Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Emotive responses are not helpful

I've had an incredibly busy week which has meant I've been unable to comment upon the compassionate release of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi until now. Which is maybe just as well, given the abusive comments some in the blogosphere have taken in their posts on the subject.

Let me start by saying that, having had a few days to think about it, I think Kenny MacAskill has made the right decision. I say that not as a loyal Nat (you'll know, if you are a regular reader that that is not the case) nor as someone with an emotional connection with the case but as someone who has taken a long look at the facts, the process and the decision and has come to a rational decision based upon my interpretation of that. You may disagree with the decision - and judging by some of the comments over the weekend, you'll be pretty vocal with it - and that's fine. But I just want you to know where I'm coming from with it.

In terms of the decision itself, I think the Justice Secretary explained how he came to it and the process itself today as reasonably as he could. His tone was respectful and dignified throughout, and he explained how he came to decision himself, that it was his decision alone and that he stood by it - and would accept the consequences of that decision. In that, I think, no one could fault the man.

The process, it seems, was fine. Looking at Scots law, a more learned friend of mine informed me that the concept of compassionate release includes only 3 sentences in the statutory provisions. According to said friend, there's no real right or wrong here in terms of the law - once the medical reports have confirmed al-Megrahi's condition as terminal, it is then up to the Justice Secretary to exercise his discretion - with due regard for past precedent. And that - given the case of a predecessor as Justice Minister (Jim Wallace) releasing a convicted child killer - appears to be what has happened.

In my mind, the decision was the right one. My view is that compassion should play a larger role in the justice system - and indeed, society - than it does. Those against argue that al-Megrahi showed no compassion for his victims, thus why should he expect compassion from us. I'm of the view that two wrongs don't make a right, and that we are better than that. He (al-Megrahi) is a convicted terrorist and using him as a yardstick for morality is not just wrong, its plain stupid. It's the same reason governments should not execute people - it lowers society to the level of criminality of the offender and that serves no one.

The global response to this has, for me, been ridiculous. US President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen and Director of the FBI Robert Mueller have all not just firmly stated their opposition to the move but outright condemned the decision. The FBI Director's criticism, in particular, suggests the decision is "detrimental to the cause of justice" and "makes a mockery of the rule of law." I'm sorry, but from an American - particularly one in charge of the FBI - that is ludicrously hypocritical. And then we had former US Ambassador to the UN, John Bolton on Newsnight last night telling us that the US "should never have allowed him to be tried in Scotland. He should have been in an American court and he should have been executed by now."

Ah yes, America - the world leader in moral authority, executioners of the mentally ill and juveniles. America that tortures terrorist suspects. America that, when the UN could not agree on a Security Council resolution in Iraq, said "screw this" and decided that they were doing it anyway - ignoring everyone else's view in the process. It seems that America can consult - and then ignore others' views, yet when someone else decides that America's view is not the right one, they throw the toys out of the pram. Boycott Scotland? Really?

UPDATE: An American friend of mine had this to add to the debate:

"Bolton's right though, we could have had a coviction by lunch and a funeral by dinner. He never would have had the chance to get cancer here, so ask yourself, who are real humanitarians?"

Americans are compassionate because they would have killed him without a second thought. We're the bad folk who let him get cancer. Just a bizarre argument really.

Look, don't get me wrong. I love America. I'd love to live there (for a while at least). I even think their foreign policy is more right than most others on these shores (I'm a "Realist" in foreign policy circles). But I just think, at times, they need to let go of their world view that they are superior to everyone and everything else in the world. So this is not an attack on America, or on American ideals and values. It's pointing out the glaring holes in the argument that somehow America is morally superior to Scotland because we released a dying man and they would have made sure that he was already dead by now.

Of course this is an emotive issue, and one which will raise heated debate around the world, not least among the families of the victims themselves. I cannot begin to imagine the suffering felt when the scenes of al-Megrahi's return to Libya were played, though it must pale into insignificance when compared with the loss they suffered when Pan Am Flight 103 fell from the sky over Lockerbie in 1988.

However, true justice cannot be served by allowing emotions to cloud decision-making. That Kenny MacAskill consulted widely, with relatives of those lost in the tragedy, with experts both medical and criminal and with government figures in America suggests that he would have known how difficult the decision that he was to take would be. But in making the decision, he had to do so without allowing these emotional responses to get in the way of justice. Thus, when he decided to release al-Megrahi, the decision was sound in law and in justice.

A man who committed a terrible atrocity and in so doing took 270 lives on a winter's night in 1988, suffering from a terminal illness, sought and was granted, compassionate release from a Scottish prison. Those are the facts. And I think it was the right thing to do.


Una 25 August 2009 at 10:08  

Hey Malc,

Well said. I seem to agree with you more these days than I used to ;)

Malc 25 August 2009 at 10:15  

Does that mean I'm getting more liberal or you're getting more conservative?

Maybe I'm just more grown up!

Anonymous,  25 August 2009 at 15:17  

Well said. Just unfortunate that all the hyperbole is coming from the media rather than the people (who seem generally to be slanted towards your viewpoint), but such is life.

subrosa 25 August 2009 at 17:52  

A development in the past few hours Malc. Kenny MacAskill has said he will do his best to get permission to publish all the communications and especially the ones with the UK government in connection with the PTA. It seems he asked for their permission previously but it was denied.

This is all courtesy of BBC Newsround.

Shuna 26 August 2009 at 12:20  

Well put Malc - 2 wrongs do not make a right, compassion is and should be a corner stone of humanity.

Wee chuckle I had to myself yesterday - I walked into local well know supermarket (the one that is one of the biggest landowner in the country) and the first isle was full of only Scottish products - I wondered if this had been the work of a creative mind, resonding to the suugested boycott - then I looked up and saw it was all under the 'Homecoming' banner. Did make me chuckle out loud!

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