The Common Good

'We Are Defined as a Nation by How We Treat Those Who Have Chosen to Hurt Us'

The decision by Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill to release on compassionate grounds the convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi has been ferociously and strongly condemned in the last three weeks by a wide range of public figures.

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In all of the press coverage, interviews, articles, and speeches, two main points of anger emerged: one, that a man guilty of such a heinous crime should never be released even -- or as it was sometimes put, especially -- on compassionate grounds; and two, that the decision appeared to have been influenced by British economic interests in Libya.

This first objection was often expressed with some version of the formulation, 'He [al-Megrahi] showed no compassion to his victims, so why should he be shown compassion?' There is a powerful simplicity to this, but in fact, it is a dangerous logic we would disavow in many other situations.

By its nature, compassion is not a cold exchange of like for like -- it is a practical outworking of the "Golden Rule": Do to others what you would have them do to you. For example, we expect our armed forces to refrain from torture and gross human rights abuses, even if the enemy forces do not abide by such standards.

Church leaders in Scotland, such as Rev. Ian Galloway, suggested that "we are defined as a nation by how we treat those who have chosen to hurt us." "Do we choose mercy even when they did not choose mercy?" Galloway asked, noting that "to choose mercy is the tough choice."

The Catholic archbishop of Glasgow, Mario Conti, stressed that "the showing of mercy in any situation is not a sign of weakness," while Dr. Jim Swire, father of one of the victims and also one of those who believes al-Megrahi is innocent, said that as a Christian, he hoped that "even if I was convinced that Megrahi was guilty, my Christian compassion and forgiveness would extend to wanting to see him die with his family around him in Libya."

The second aspect of the affair that angered so many people was the allegation that al-Megrahi's release on compassionate grounds was influenced by the British government's prioritisation of economic interests with Libya.

Many were outraged by what was perceived to be opportunities for British businesses coming before keeping a convicted murderer in prison. However, economic interests routinely trump concern for human rights or justice when the U.K. and U.S. engage with other countries, a state of affairs that continues week in week out, with the approval or silent complicity of the same politicians who reacted so furiously to the al-Megrahi decision.

Anger from bereaved loved ones is understandable; cheap posturing by politicians less so. But it would be a missed opportunity if there was not a moment of reflection both on foreign policy priorities, and on the words of Kenny MacAskill:

The perpetration of an atrocity and outrage cannot and should not be a basis for losing sight of who we are, the values we seek to uphold, and the faith and beliefs by which we seek to live.

Ben White is a journalist and writer based in London. He blogs at www.benwhite.org.uk

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