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The Controversy of Compassion

A very interesting and controversial thing happened in Scotland last week.

Kenny MacAskill, Scotland’s Justice Minister, released, on grounds of compassion, the convicted bomber of the PanAm flight that blew up over Lockerbie in 1988, killing 270 people. The convicted bomber, Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, has prostrate cancer and, according to British doctors, has about three months to live.

A portion of MacAskill’s statement and a pretty hard-hitting BBC interview can be found here. I urge you to watch both videos. It’s a glimpse at justice in terms we don’t usually hear in this country.

So… Uh, yes… Release of a convicted terrorist on compassionate grounds is, well, pretty ballsy.

And when al-Megrahi returned to a very public hero’s welcome in Libya, people already angry about his release got even angrier. Even people in support of his release – and indeed MacAskill himself – were pretty angry about that display.

In our country, i.e. the United States, we don’t have the element of compassion as part of our justice system. We have a “fuck ‘em” attitude toward our prison population, embodied most clearly and cynically in the death penalty. In Scotland, however, compassion is a requisite part of the justice system.

President Obama denounced the decision, and FBI director Robert Mueller accused the Scottish government of giving comfort to terrorists.

So it’s no surprise that there’s a movement in the U.S. to boycott Scotland. Don’t visit. Don’t take advantage of its legendary golf courses. Don’t drink its fine whisky. As someone who enjoys Scotland, its beauty, its food, its drink, and its women (or at least one particular woman), I think that taking this sort of action is really only punishing the people who participate in the boycott.

My heart goes out and always will go out to the victims of the bombing of PanAm Flight 103. It’s incredibly painful to lose someone anyway, and losing someone through an act of violence, terrorism, or other means in which someone else can be fairly blamed must cause tremendous anger. Assuming justice was done and that al-Megrahi did indeed blow up Flight 103, I will never defend his horrific act of murder.

But by releasing al-Megrahi so that he can die with his family at home, MacAskill has said something about our humanity that you don’t hear very often. We can rise above people who do us harm. We can recognize that people who commit horrific acts are still human, if not humane. We can value something larger than punishment and firmly grasp the moral high ground.

As the missus asked rhetorically and succinctly over the weekend, “Why is compassion controversial?”

I expect that the missus and I are in a small minority of people in this country who think the Scottish Justice Minister performed a beautiful, profoundly spiritual act of humanity.

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