Purpose of imprisonment misunderstood

The recent release of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, the only man convicted in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, has angered many people over the past few weeks.

Words like “shocked,” “heartbroken” and “depressed” have been the stuff of headlines, particularly in the U.S., where most of the flight’s passengers were from.

Not surprisingly, the victims’ loved ones feel that the small measure of justice they received has been absconded with.

Unfortunately for them, they are wrong. Not just about the “mistake” of Mr. al-Meghari’s release – that is a matter about which Scottish law is quite clear – but about the intent of the justice system.

Amongst Americans – and Canadians too, for that matter – there often seems to be a feeling that when a criminal is convicted, their sentence serves as revenge for the victim or victims.

This is mistaking an action’s effect with its cause. Quite the contrary, in fact – the very purpose of the judiciary is to mitigate the destructive influence which personal revenge can have on society.

Victims, or their relatives, may find comfort in the criminal’s fate, but that is not the main intention of the courts; they exist to decide what manner of sentence best serves the greater good.

To put it very simply, if someone has killed they may do it again. It is thus prudent for that individual to be removed to a secluded location, executed, or made to undergo treatment – depending, of course, on what country it is we’re talking about.

Mr. al-Megrahi was tried, convicted and sentenced accordingly. He was to spend 27 years in prison, far removed from any opportunity to commit another act of murder or terrorism.
He was not put there so that the people affected by his alleged crimes could bask in his sufferings. The court that tried him was not a replacement for their desire to hit back.
Sadly, for some, this revelation came only with the announcement that the Scottish government was releasing Mr. al-Megrahi, who is dying from prostate cancer, on compassionate grounds.

On Aug. 20, 2009, CBC news reported that Kara Weipz, the sister of one of the victims, said, “I don’t understand how the Scots can show compassion. It’s an utter insult and utterly disgusting.… I don’t show compassion for someone who showed no remorse.”
Her statement betrays a belief that Mr. al-Megrahi’s prison sentence had something to do with her; it didn’t.

Ms. Weipz’s anger at the decision to release him is entirely of her own making; it is based on the fallacious assumption that the courts did as they did to make her, and the relatives of other victims, feel better.

I find it difficult to differentiate between satisfaction in another person’s incarceration and the fulfilment that the same people assume Mr. al-Megrahi took in his alleged actions.
In the latter case, people were deprived of their lives; in the former, a person was deprived of a portion of his life.

To paraphrase Frank Herbert, the difference is only one of degree.

Taking pleasure from either situation is not a thing to aspire to. That people would is evidence of the dark currents that ripple under the surface of human nature.

However, there is a brighter side to be found in this issue.

Over the past several years, it has become obvious that Mr. al-Megrahi’s trial and subsequent appeal were both riddled with problems.

Because of this, a second appeal was in the works. Unfortunately, given the advanced state of Mr. al-Megrahi’s illness, it was extremely unlikely that he would survive to the trial’s conclusion.

In the U.S., and, I fear, in Canada as well, this would be of little interest to anyone.

“Convicted terrorist” is not a label which curries much sympathy these days, as evidenced by President Obama’s statement warning Scotland against a decision to release.
However, the Scottish government decided that this man deserved the chance to return home before he died, in spite of the awful destruction that he may very well have wrought.
A lawyer for several of the victims declared the decision a victory of government interests over those of the people.

I wholeheartedly feel that it was, in fact, just the opposite.
Instead of bending to what must surely have been a tempting political impulse, Scotland’s government decided to remember that, whatever else he may be, Mr. al-Megrahi remains human.

It is a consideration from which people on our side of the Atlantic could stand to learn.