Steven Waldman

Steven Waldman

Justice vs. Mercy, Judaism vs. Christianity on the Lockerbie Terrorist

The Washington Post featured two relatives of victims of the Lockerbie Pan Am attack. Each had lost loved ones, but one supported and one opposed the Scottish court’s decision to allow the terrorist, Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, to return to Libya to die (he has cancer).
Stephanie Bernstein’s husband died; she opposed releasing al-Megrahi:

“Releasing him sends the wrong message,” she said. “It will be seen by [Libyan president] Col. Moammar Gaddafi as a sign of weakness. If we don’t try to work towards a just world, what good is this release?” …Bernstein, who was ordained as a rabbi this year, traced her approach to mercy to the Torah. “It’s in Deuteronomy,” she said. “If we’re not committed to following the rule of law, how can we say that we’re working toward a world that is just?”


Anastasios Vrenios’s son was also on the plane; he supports releasing the terrorist:

Vrenios has come to believe that he must decide to be one of two people: “You have a choice in life, don’t you? You can either be bitter and let it turn you inside out . . . turn you into a bitter human being. Or you can let it go. You don’t forgive the act. But you don’t become a vindictive human being so that it sends out poison to other people. Maybe it’s a Christian thing.”

UPDATE: Everyday Ethics columnist Padmini Mangunta says she opposes the release in part because, “wasn’t he always going to die? Life imprisonment means that one would, in fact, die in prison, right? So why would his impending death due to cancer make a difference one way or another?”

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jay mack

posted August 21, 2009 at 12:21 pm

I really don’t think the Lockerbie release has a thing to do with any of the three major Abrahamic religions. This is a matter of statecraft, which was apparently taken out of the state’s hands by a sympathetic judge whose ruling was not based on law. The fact of the matter is that a life sentence should have one conclusion, and that is death in prison. It is in its way the ultimate death penalty, as Mafia don John Gotti learned when his cancer killed him. Justice and mercy are not always exclusive concepts, certainly not in the Tanakh nor the Bible, nor even the Kuran, but when speaking of justice in that context, one is talking about one’s relationship with the Divine. It has nothing to do with the maintaining of the social order that is the duty of civil justice. The mercy that one is supposed to show the killer of 270 persons is a religious duty, a forgiveness that has more to do with one’s own heart. It has nothing to do with letting him enjoy the comfort of his nation and family while dying. If so, the logical conclusion is that for humanitarian reasons he ought to live the remainder of his life from the time of the trial in the comfort of his family.

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posted August 22, 2009 at 1:10 pm

I believe the Scottish officials made the correct decision based on a humanitarian policy. G-d must be very sad that so many of his people have so little compassion and may not even understand the concept.

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posted August 23, 2009 at 10:51 pm

Dear Mr Secretary
Over the years I have been a prosecutor, and recently as the Director of the FBI, I have made it a practice not to comment on the actions of other prosecutors, since only the prosecutor handling the case has all the facts and the law before him in reaching the appropriate decision.
Your decision to release Megrahi causes me to abandon that practice in this case. I do so because I am familiar with the facts, and the law, having been the Assistant Attorney General in charge of the investigation and indictment of Megrahi in 1991. And I do so because I am outraged at your decision, blithely defended on the grounds of ”compassion”.
Your action in releasing Megrahi is as inexplicable as it is detrimental to the cause of justice. Indeed your action makes a mockery of the rule of law. Your action gives comfort to terrorists around the world who now believe that regardless of the quality of the investigation, the conviction by jury after the defendant is given all due process, and sentence appropriate to the crime, the terrorist will be freed by one man’s exercise of ”compassion”. Your action rewards a terrorist even though he never admitted to his role in this act of mass murder and even though neither he nor the government of Libya ever disclosed the names and roles of others who were responsible.
Your action makes a mockery of the emotions, passions and pathos of all those affected by the Lockerbie tragedy: the medical personnel who first faced the horror of 270 bodies strewn in the fields around Lockerbie, and in the town of Lockerbie itself; the hundreds of volunteers who walked the fields of Lockerbie to retrieve any piece of debris related to the break-up of the plane; the hundreds of FBI agents and Scottish police who undertook an unprecedented global investigation to identify those responsible; the prosecutors who worked for years – in some cases a full career – to see justice done.
But most importantly, your action makes a mockery of the grief of the families who lost their own on December 21, 1988. You could not have spent much time with the families, certainly not as much time as others involved in the investigation and prosecution. You could not have visited the small wooden warehouse where the personal items of those who perished were gathered for identification – the single sneaker belonging to a teenager; the Syracuse sweatshirt never again to be worn by a college student returning home for the holidays; the toys in a suitcase of a businessman looking forward to spending Christmas with his wife and children.
You apparently made this decision without regard to the views of your partners in the investigation and prosecution of those responsible for the Lockerbie tragedy. Although the FBI and Scottish police, and prosecutors in both countries, worked exceptionally closely to hold those responsible accountable, you never once sought our opinion, preferring to keep your own counsel and hiding behind opaque references to ”the need for compassion”.
You have given the family members of those who died continued grief and frustration. You have given those who sought to assure that the persons responsible would be held accountable the back of your hand. You have given Megrahi a ”jubilant welcome” in Tripoli, according to the reporting. Where, I ask, is the justice?
Sincerely yours,
Robert S. Mueller, III

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Elizabeth S Roche

posted August 24, 2009 at 2:48 pm

I agree wholeheartedly with Mueller’s opinion, and what an excellent letter he wrote in defense of justice! This isznt6uf an abhorrent misuse of compassion.

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Laura Weakley

posted September 1, 2009 at 7:32 pm

Well put Mr. Mueller. Judaism teaches us that only the person (or persons in this case) who has been injured (to use a legal term) has the RIGHT and the ability to forgive. When that person, or people, are dead, there IS NO FORGIVENESS. Nor do I believe there should be.
As far as compassion is concerned, Deuteronomy teaches us that we shall not have compassion for those who are evil. Otherwise as Mr. Mueller put it,
“Your action in releasing Megrahi is as inexplicable as it is detrimental to the cause of justice. Indeed your action makes a mockery of the rule of law. Your action gives comfort to terrorists around the world who now believe that regardless of the quality of the investigation, the conviction by jury after the defendant is given all due process, and sentence appropriate to the crime, the terrorist will be freed by one man’s exercise of ”compassion”. ”
This decision has given the absolutely wrong message to all terrorists. And by the way, SO WHAT that he is dying of cancer (given what he did to MANY others who died)?! WHY should he be made comfortable?! He gave up that right when he became complicit in the Lockerbie tragedy!
It is just this type of “compassion” for true criminal felons that is the ruination of societies, countries, etc. Should we have had compassion for the Nazi’s? I could rant on, but I believe I’ve made my point. Mr. Secretary, you obviously do NOT understand the necessity for Law in order to have a just society. Mr. Mueller’s letter hits every target square in the middle!
My favorite quote from the Torah has alway been, “Justice, justice you shall pursue.” Your cavalier decision was about as far from that as one could be.
Laura Weakley

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