Monday, August 23, 2010


There’s been a heck of a lot of press coverage about the release last year from a Scottish prison of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, “the Lockerbie Bomber”. And quite rightly so. It seems everybody has an informed opinion, one way or the other, on the wisdom of setting this convicted murderer free, and it’s comforting to know there are still some people out there who are capable of rational argument.

I’ve held off passing comment because I’m living in Australia these days, and my feeling up till now has been that what goes on in Scotland doesn’t really affect me. But I’ve come to realise that’s a misguided philosophy since I will inevitably return there one day, to live or to die, and because I still speak with a brogue that identifies me as Scottish wherever I go, despite the Australian bushman’s hat sitting atop my head.

So, friends, I want to use this blog to make my position clear for all time: I believe it was fundamentally wrong to release Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi before he paid full price for his crime. In fact, I believe it's fundamentally wrong to release any convicted criminal before he or she completes the full sentence handed down by the trial court judge.

And, just so you know, it irks me when people – complete strangers, mostly – decry me, as a Scot, for the additional pain the Scottish government has caused the families of the victims of the Lockerbie atrocity.

I was sitting in front of the fire at home that cold night in Scotland in December, 1988, enjoying a beer with some friends. It was a quiet Wednesday evening in Perth, and we’d just begun our Christmas holidays. We were watching a video – can’t remember what was on it – but when it finished the TV brought us back to the real world with news coverage of the carnage that had rained down on Lockerbie, a relatively peaceful village in the Scottish borders.

The pictures we saw were horrendous. Flames. Twisted metal. Demolished houses. Papers and possessions scattered in the now infamous crater. I was a cop at the time, and I know from bitter experience of house fires and vehicle collisions – small bones by comparison – that the rescue crews and police officers on the ground will have witnessed something unspeakable that night, and for many days and nights afterwards.

The enormity of al-Megrahi’s crime must never be understated. Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi’s victims were human beings. Most were ordinary people, just like you and me, making the long journey home to be with their loved ones at Christmas, a sacred time of year for us Christians. But that didn’t matter to al-Megrahi. He had his agenda, and that was what was important to him.

That man denied his involvement. Even after an impartial court convicted him, he appealed his conviction, rubbing salt into the wounds he inflicted on the families of his victims yet again.

He has shown no remorse. He’s shown no empathy for those upon whom he heaped indescribable suffering. He should have died in prison, cancer or no.

Yet, the Scottish government saw fit – apparently without consultation with the families of the victims of the bombing (or with anyone else for that matter) – to ‘show compassion’ and release him from prison. And they cite a medical report from some source that now refuses to even explain itself to the people who most need to know how and why this decision was reached: the families who lost their loved ones at the hands of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi.

You may have guessed that I have a passionate viewpoint on the subject of crime and punishment. I admit right here and in public that I’m a hardliner – commit a crime and you’ll pay the full price for it. No remission or time off for good behaviour. No access to TV. No access to telephones. One meal a day. If you’re sentenced to 30 years, you’ll serve 30 years and break rocks while you do it.

Yeah, I know – I’m an animal.

Or am I?

Inspired by what I see as the inadequacies of most modern-day criminal justice systems, I wrote a novel speculating on how close the public is to revolt over the matters of crime and punishment – that was long before Scotland’s Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill gaily pranced to front and centre of the world stage and showed up the Scottish criminal justice system as the pussycat it really is.

But here’s the rub: if you read just about any newspaper in Australia or Scotland (my points of reference) you won’t have to search too hard to find an article somewhere exposing the softly-softly approach to modern ‘justice’. And if you read the online editions in particular, the chances are you’ll come across a readers’ comments section – what the public have to say about the level of punishment handed down in our courts.

The comments can get quite alarming at times, even for me, but the gist of what the public has to say is this: the vast majority of us want stiffer sentences; we want prison to be a horrible place, not a holiday camp, such that it serves as a genuine deterrent; but most of all, we want to feel safe to walk the streets.

Rapists often serve two years when they should (in my opinion) be locked up for life – hard labour, no remission.

Child molesters are smacked on the wrist and told to stay away from kids. (Here’s a rhetorical question: how many kids’ lives does a child molester have to ruin before he’s (or she’s) considered a threat to society?)

A murderer generally goes to prison for a lot less time than someone who steals $10 million from a bank – assuming the prosecution decides to pursue the charge of murder, and isn't enticed to settle on the easy option of accepting a guilty plea to culpable homicide.

Is that justice? Real justice? If you answered ‘yes’, come the hell on! Have you asked the victims of crime what they think? Have you asked their families?

So here’s my recommendation to Kenny MacAskill and Alex Salmond: stand up and be men about what you’ve done. You made an appalling decision. Sure, you have no legal obligation to travel to America to justify your actions; but your obligation to the families of al-Megrahi's victims goes far deeper than legality – it reaches into the very heart of this thing we call 'morality'.

Get yourselves over to America, meet with Senator Menendez and his colleagues, and with the families of every victim of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi if they want to meet you, and look them in the eye. Tell them why you did the unthinkable. Show them your reports. Justify yourselves. Prove that you have just as much compassion for them as you do for this convicted murderer.

Then, when you genuinely understand their hurt, their anger and their despair at what you’ve done, apologise to them, and to the people of Scotland for the embarrassment you’ve cause us, and resign from the Scottish government.