A Mass Murderer Goes Home

By Jeffrey Page

I read about the “compassionate release” from prison of the mass murderer Abdel Baset al-Megrahi and, like a few billion other people around the world, I was nauseated.

Al-Megrahi was convicted for the 1988 bombing of Pan-Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie resulting in the deaths of 270 people. It took 12 years to bring him to trial. He was sentenced to life imprisonment with a required minimum of 27 years behind bars.

Now, after eight years, he’s out and back home in Libya, freed by the Scots minister of justice, Kenny MacAskill, because Al-Megrahi has terminal prostate cancer and is not expected to live more than three months. Al-Megrahi was welcomed home as a national hero with flowers tossed at him by cheering crowds. The son of Col. Moammar Khadafy hugged him.

Compassion for al-Megrahi? There are people who can summon up such feelings for individuals like al-Megrahi but I’m not one of them. I’ve been opposed to capital punishment for as long as I can recall, and am saddened that the work of this one man made me believe that in his case the death penalty would have been appropriate. This is a man whose bomb killed 259 passengers and crew, plus another 11 people on the ground. If there’s been talk of compassion for the families and friends of the victims I haven’t heard it.

After I read the news of al-Megrahi’s release, I thought about Theo Cohen. Theo, you may recall, was the 20-year old woman from Port Jervis who was flying home on Flight 103. She was a theater major at the University of Syracuse and had just completed a semester in Great Britain.

To say I knew the Cohens – Theo and her parents, Susan and Daniel – would be an impossible stretch. But 11 years before al-Megrahi’s treachery, my wife, my daughter and I were at a picnic at a friend’s house in the hills over Cuddebackville. The Cohens were there, too. Daniel wrote science books for children. Susan was writing romance novels. Theo was about 9, my kid was 7. They played together on the grass.

And that was it. I don’t think I ever saw any of the Cohens again.

Then came Flight 103 and my admittedly tenuous connection to it. I remembered Theo and of course thought about my own daughter. How could any dad not? And how could I not wonder about the Cohens’ horror, first of not knowing, and then of understanding how their only child died?

The very idea of freedom for al-Megrahi is an abomination. Do the math and you come to the sickening realization that he served precisely 11 days in jail for each of the people he murdered. I think that if anyone deserves to die frightened, alone and friendless in a prison hospital, he does. I don’t often have such thoughts. It took the likes of al-Megrahi to bring them out.

What about compassion for the Cohens, I wonder, and for all the relatives and friends of everyone else on Flight 103? MacAskill said he based his decision to free the prisoner strictly on al-Megrahi’s health, though there are stories circulating that British-Libyan trade and oil may be part of the deal.

I wonder how MacAskill would explain his reasoning if he were seated across a table from Susan Cohen.

Jeffrey can be reached at jeffrey@zestoforange.com


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