Recently the news media has been dominated by the national health care debate and the indictment of the former Secretary of State here in New Mexico. These and other local happenings have pushed off the front page the release of Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi who was convicted in 2001 for the murder of 270 people in connection with the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland on December 21, 1988. He is terminally ill with cancer and is being allowed by the Scottish minister of justice to go back to Libya to die at home - an act of “compassion”.
This event went unnoticed by most individuals except for those who were directly impacted by that horrible act.
In December of 1988 I was assigned to the criminal/reactive squad of the Washington field office of the FBI. At the time we were located in a ratty office building in a depressed part of Washington D.C. Squads were arranged in open bays with shoulder height partitions separating one squad from another. There was not a lot of rhyme or reason for the location of the squads and my squad was located next to one of the terrorism squads.
Pan Am 103 went down on December 21st carrying people home-bound for the Christmas holiday. Initially it was treated as a simple air disaster. Something routinely handled by the NTSB. Within a week it became obvious it was not mechanical failure that doomed those people, but rather a horrid act of terrorism and thus the responsibility of the FBI. Washington field office was designated as the “office of origin” for this investigation.
It was between Christmas and New Years, and I, unlike most of my colleagues, was working in the office. I had a minor case that had some court hearings scheduled. I remember the Supervisor of the terrorism squad stepping out of his office, looking around, seeing me and calling my name. That was how I was selected for the task force working Pan Am 103 - The case we knew as “Scotbomb”.
Over twenty years have passed and memories can fade, but some images never leave you. These events that would not make a good movie. There were no high speed chases or kicking in doors but there was drama… of the heart and soul.
I can recall sitting around the office that first Saturday, together with a couple of other agents, crafting a massive teletype to the field offices where victim’s homes were located. Within days a command post was established and a team of agents pulled together from various squads.
The plane went down in Lockerbie which is served by the Dumfries & Galloway Constabulary. This department is the smallest of the eleven law enforcement agencies covering Scotland. Scottish authorities put together a task force drawing officers from all of these departments.
A team of four or five detectives from Scotland came to Washington D.C. and were part of our command post across the hall from the SAC’s office.
I remember the Scots had at the time a very advanced data base system which was constantly updated by one detective. We, the FBI agents, were “cutting edge” in that we had all teletypes uploaded into a text searching program.
My job in those days before DNA testing was to coordinate the activities of FBI agents who went to victim’s homes to try and collect latent fingerprints which could be used to identify bodies. Eventually the officials in Scotland dispatched to the U.S. a special team of detectives lead by the commander of the Criminal Investigation Division (CID) of the Dumfries & Galloway Constabulary Their purpose was to personally tell the families of nine or so American families that they were not going to get their loved one’s complete body back. They would only get a portion. It was a “class act” and one that still impresses me today. My job was to arrange to have an FBI agent accompany each detective. While that process was going on, clearance was received to approach another ten or so families and tell them they would get nothing back.
Years later, I ran into one of the FBI agents who went out on one of those visits. He shared with me that they called one family ahead of time, told them they were coming, and when they got there, found two chairs waiting for them in the living room. Fifteen or so family members faced the agent and detective seeking answers to questions these law enforcement officers simply could not provide.
Another responsibility for me was to spend a week at the Pan Am reservation center in Northern Virginia. Every day a Pan Am employee and I went through reservation by reservation on the computer as I prepared a separate report detailing all the data for each of the reservations. Within a few years Pan Am would no longer exist as an airline, destroyed in part by trial lawyers hungry for spoils from this wounded institution of American aviation - a victim for a second time.
I recall our cramped little command post with no windows and tacky furniture was the scene of countless phone calls, meetings, and writing. On the wall was an 8 by 10 color glossy photo from the crash site of an empty shoe of a toddler. There are many other memories that all come crashing back in moments of quiet reflection.
I was released from the task force shortly after I completed the review of the reservation data. Tidbits from agents still working the case were relayed to me over the years. There was talk of a special trip to Malta and other breakthroughs.
In 1992 I transferred to the FBI office in Roswell and eight years later it looked like I might go to the Netherlands to testify in the Pan Am 103 trial. I was interviewed over the phone by a defense investigator, but I did not need to travel. One defendant, Megrahi, was convicted and another acquitted.
For me, the most compelling memory is of a conversation I had with the commander of the Dumfries & Galloway CID unit. I don’t recall if it was when he came to our home for supper one night or as we sat quietly in a bar with a cold drink, as cops often do.
The plane had crashed at night. Wreckage and bodies were strewn around the countryside. Eleven residents of Lockerbie were dead including one family completely wiped out. A local ice-skating rink was designated as a temporary morgue. The decision was made, and orders were issued, that the bodies were to be left untouched until daylight. However, the first half dozen or so bodies were all children brought in during the night. In spite of the orders to leave the corpses untouched until dawn, people would come across the body of a small child, and just could not leave them lying in the cold. They picked them up and carried them in their arms to the mortuary. I sat there frozen as this story was related to me, and it has haunted me for over twenty years.
There are good and noble people in Scotland. I have met some. Their honor has been soiled by the actions of a vile politician.
We constantly hear calls for pity, compassion, and forgiveness for criminals. These demands make a mockery of the pain and suffering of victims. Real justice demands the evil doer be held accountable. We must never forget that. Forgiveness is meant to be a personal act of release. Pity and compassion are to be reserved for the victims of misfortune. We have become uncomfortable with the task of holding people accountable for their actions. It is hard work plus we don’t want to be seen as “judgmental”.
In this day and age, we bestow compassion on the betrayers of public trust, and pity upon cold blooded killers. By doing so, we mock the grief and agony of the victims of crime. Some tell the victim to suffer in silence or just “let go”. That is wrong. The victim must be valued and vindicated if they, and the community, are to heal and know serenity or calm again. For as the saying goes “No justice, no peace”.