What is not being discussed, to an alarming degree, is that the man in question, Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, is very possibly not guilty of the crime for which he was convicted.
The evidence which sent him to prison was extremely flimsy, the trial proceedings were a mess, and a number of the people who testified against him were extremely unreliable witnesses. His co-defendant, Al-Amin Khalifa Fhimah, was found innocent and acquitted under nearly identical circumstances, and there is little to suggest that the evidence against al-Megrahi was any stronger than the evidence against Fhimah. In fact, most of the evidence which has arisen since the conviction -- including documentation from Malta Air and a critical CIA report -- is exculpatory rather than condemnatory.
Among the people who believe that al-Megrahi may be innocent of involvement in the Lockerbie bombing:
- The U.N. observer assigned to monitor the trial
- Attorneys for the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission
- A number of Scottish judges, who agreed a miscarriage of justice had taken place
- The Arab League's Ministerial Council
- Award-winning investigative journalists Hugh Miles and Robert Fisk
- Several Scottish members of Parliament from different parties
- The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency
- Robert Black, one of the men who helped bring al-Megrahi to trial in the first place
Despite all this, and despite a growing amount of evidence that makes it seem like al-Megrahi was being railroaded from the start, he has consistently been denied appeal and retrial. The U.S. has consistently opposed his release, and the dreary pace at which his appeals have been met are, if not suspicious, at least indicative of how uninterested the criminal justice system is in discovering the truth in terror proceedings, as opposed to getting a quick conviction. "The truth never dies," al-Megrahi said on his release this week, citing an old Arab proverb; but he's wrong. The truth dies all the time, alone and unnoticed. In what is turning into a huge furor over humanitarianism vs. vengeance, accompanied by a hopelessly confused muddle over oil deals and political wrangling, the truth, just like Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, is dying.
It's genuinely heartbreaking to hear the indignant wails of people* who lost their wives, their husbands, their children in the Lockerbie bombing -- which was unmistakably a cowardly and cruel act of savage, meaningless terror. They feel that justice has been snatched from their hands, that the closure they may have received from al-Meghari's conviction has been blown to pieces, that an unrepentant killer is getting compassion and kindness that he never showed to their families. But the conviction of an innocent is not justice. It's never justice. It's vengeance, and vengeance can never give you real closure, because it means that you've put a stopwatch on your grief. It means that you've given your loss and desire for justice a deadline, and that you're willing to meet that deadline with any old scapegoat. Worst of all, it means the person or people who's truly responsible for your grief is allowed to remain free because you put expedience before justice.
The question we need to be asking right now isn't whether or not it's right to let a terrorist go free on humanitarian grounds. The question we need to be asking is whether an innocent man was imprisoned, and nobody did anything about it until he was on the verge of death.
*: It should be noted that most of those Lockerbie victims who oppose al-Megrahi's release are Americans. A much larger number of Scottish victims are dubious about his guilt.