Matt Gemmell

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Justice and Mercy

general 3 min read

Today, Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi was released on compassionate grounds from prison here in Scotland (due to terminal prostate cancer, with an approximate life expectancy of three months hence), and returned to Libya. He was convicted in 2001 of murder in relation to what is widely known as the “Lockerbie bombing”; the bombing of Pan-Am flight 103 from London Heathrow to New York JFK on 21st December 1988. Large parts of the wreckage of the 747 fell into the Scottish town of Lockerbie, hence the name.

The facts are relatively well-known. The aircraft’s 259 passengers and crew, along with 11 Lockerbie townsfolk, died as a result of the bomb explosion and subsequent falling wreckage. The victims represented 21 nations, with the majority of 180 being from the US, and some 52 from around the UK.

The reactions from some members of the British and American public have been predictable. “The victims weren’t allowed to die with their families; why should he?”, or “He should be left to die in a cell”, or “Today I am ashamed to be Scottish”, or “He should have been hanged; a life for 270 lives” and so on. One particularly kooky person on Twitter (perhaps unsurprisingly self-identifying as GOP) even hoped that “all Scottish people get cancer”, and advised his government to “nuke Edinburgh”. As I said, such reactions are regrettably to be expected.

It’s important to understand that the decision to allow the release was reached by the Scottish government in Edinburgh, rather than the British government based in London, since authority for such criminal justice decisions in Scotland has been devolved to the Scottish government. Thus, the eyes of the world regarding this controversial action are solely on Scotland. Labour is trying to stay away from it, the Tories in the form of David Cameron are against it, and Obama is also understandably against it (and no doubt delighted to momentarily not be talking about health reforms).

There’s a particular mentality which rises up when the issue of mercy towards criminals is broached, and it’s an intellectually disturbing one. The idea is that, because the recipient of said mercy is a convicted criminal, that somehow the issue becomes intertwined with that of justice for the crime he or she committed. This is a fundamentally flawed position.

Notwithstanding the equally important realisations that justice is not (and often physically cannot be) restitution, and most certainly cannot be thought of as retribution, it’s also critical to understand that compassion and mercy are entirely orthogonal to criminal justice. The one does not affect the other, nor should it.

The compassionate release of al-Megrahi is nothing to do with al-Megrahi himself, per se. Nor is it anything to do with his crime (always on the assumption he did indeed commit it, of course). Nor indeed is it anything to do with the victims of that crime, or their surviving acquaintances. Now, I’m not claiming that the decision was reached in isolation from political factors - to do so would be naive - but the principle of compassionate release itself simply doesn’t have a bearing on systems of justice.

Compassionate release neither tempers nor mocks justice, and to say that it somehow does a disservice to the victims, or is “disrespectful” to their surviving family members, or somehow condones the crime to any degree, is for the feeble-minded. Again, compassion is independent of the man or the crime or the punishment, and nor should the man or the crime or the punishment temper compassion. That is the ideal we must seek to uphold.

I’m in support of compassionate release from both a moral and a pragmatic standpoint. It’s my position that a sentence of life imprisonment is surely fulfilled upon an inmate being confirmed as terminally ill and with a very short time left to live. I see no need for prisoners to die in jail, potential for repeat offending naturally having been taken into account. To release them to die with a measure of humanity makes a positive statement about a culture and its values. It is in fact the triumph of a society which can say, irrespective of the magnitude of a crime, that its values are unaltered. This is the point which a primitive stance based on anger and retribution fails to comprehend.

The price of living in our society is that we must endure that very discomfort when we attempt to reconcile our outrage and anger and animalistic desire for vengeance with our wish to show compassion and to demonstrate that our ideals and values have not been compromised. That is the cost. We cannot have one without the other.

Compassionate release speaks of the values of a society; it makes no remarks either way about a prisoner, or a crime, or its victims. Justice is absolutely undiminished by mercy. Furthermore, we are all enhanced and edified by demonstrations of compassion.

By all means take issue with a man and with a terrible crime. By all means see justice done, within the framework of a reasonable and progressive society.

But to take issue with mercy, or to somehow claim that it must be earned or is a privilege which can be given up - indeed, to claim that mercy is somehow about the recipient rather than the giver - is to miss the point entirely, and endangers the principles our society is founded upon.

Such a stance inflicts a far, far graver injury than the loss of life of any magnitude.