This article was last modified on October 16, 2009.

Empire Strikes First: Libya

Fashion trends and music styles of the 1980s have returned, as we knew they inevitably would. And so, too, have the villains of the 80s: Iran and Libya. While Iran has made headlines for several years now, Libya has only recently rejoined the ranks of Muslim countries to be feared, with two very high profile events in the past month or so: Colonel Qaddafi’s rambling, sometimes incoherent speech at the United Nations, and the release of the man convicted of bombing Pam Am 103, one of the most notorious acts of terror in memory.

These two events can be looked at quite differently. After being in power for forty years, not much can be done about Qaddafi other than to wait for change to come from within Libya. Despite his eccentricities, he remains immensely popular and his Pan-African, Pan-Arab rhetoric makes him a natural ally for other African and Middle Eastern leaders. And amidst his claims at the United Nations about JFK conspiracy theories and other nonsense, he made some critical remarks that the disadvantaged sympathized with: the dubbing of the Security Council as a “terror council” that has ultimate power while the majority of nations get a voice but no vote, and the sad fact that despite being “united”, no fewer than sixty-five wars have occurred under the Security Council’s watch. How can two nations share a table and yet still send their children to kill each other’s children?

I spoke this month with an expert on American-Libyan relations, who has testified before Congress, appeared on countless news programs, and founded the Arab-American Student Association at UW-Madison. He chooses to remain anonymous, so I will call him “Sayid”. Sayid welcomes the coming of a new Libyan leader, assuring me that both the Libyan people and relations with America will be “better off”, so long as the new government is not composed of “religious fanatics”. A brief glance of the secular administrations in Jordan and Lebanon as opposed to the theocracies of Saudi Arabia or the Taliban make his reasoning clear. Until then, Qaddafi must be tolerated.

What can be changed immediately is our approach to international issues, primarily with regards to terrorism and justice. Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, the only man to be convicted for the 1988 bombing of Pam Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, has recently been released to his family, amid cries of disgust and disappointment from the British and American governments. The true disgust should not rest on this man’s humanitarian release, but on the dishonest kangaroo court that convicted Megrahi in the first place. A review of the facts reveals flaw after flaw in the prosecution. (For the record, I am not declaring Megrahi innocent of the 270 deaths; I simply insist that there was more than “reasonable doubt” to think him guilty. Sayid concurs, saying the evidence is lacking.)

Initial American intelligence documents pointed not to Libya, but to a Palestinian group funded by Iran and Syria. Why would Iran want to blow up an airplane? For starters, there were four American intelligence officers on board, making it a valuable target. The more obvious motive is retaliation. Not long before the Pan Am explosion, Iran Air Flight 655 was shot down by a US Navy vessel, the Vincennes – 290 civilians were killed, in airspace that was clearly Iranian. Our Navy’s defense was that they believed the plane was an F-14 Tomcat. Even if this were true – and the two planes look nothing alike, by the way – there is no reason to down any aircraft within their national territory. If Iran shot down an American passenger plane within our national territory, a simple apology or “oops” would not begin to cover it. Wars have been waged over less.

If the Iranians had the motive and intelligence documents made a strong case, how did Libya ultimately get the blame? Speculation says that Iranian support was needed for Operation Desert Storm, so alliances had to quickly shift. An entire decade of supporting Iraq against Iran would now be flipped, only to once again later be flipped once more. There is no wonder the Middle East has a general distrust of America, when allies become targets overnight. Even Libya is now considered neutral and no longer a sponsor of terror.

Megrahi had everything against him in court, despite no solid evidence connecting him to the bombing. The Samsonite suitcase that contained the bomb had an explosive device similar to that used by the Palestinian terror group a mere two months earlier. That anyone else would use the same device is a large coincidence. Clothes found in the suitcase were traced to haberdasher Tony Gauci of Malta, who provided inaccurate and conflicting information about who he had sold the clothes to, even after being bribed with two million dollars. Another key witness, Ulrich Lumpert, later admitted under oath that he had lied about the origin of the bomb’s timer. No physical evidence, no witnesses, no confession, and still Megrahi was sent to prison.

Upon his release in August, President Obama called Megrahi’s welcome home “highly objectionable”, Gordon Brown was “angry and repulsed”. Sayid, on the other hand, thinks the matter was handled with the utmost restraint. “The Libyan government did not plan big ceremonies. The reception was measured; it could have been bigger. It was more for tribal consideration, as he [is descended] from the two largest tribes.” Anyone who watched the footage will have noticed the very small gathering that waited at the airport. Consider this: Megrahi has maintained his innocence, and his family has every right to believe him. Arab custom requires he be welcomed by government dignitaries, but they did not grant him this. Suppose an American man is released from prison following a false rape or murder conviction. Surely we would expect and encourage large numbers to turn out for his reintegration to society. For the Libyans, this is even bigger: the beginning of erasing what has been a national shame. Global reactions were not all negative; former South African president Nelson Mandela, for example, supported the release.

For all his embraces of diplomacy, and his Nobel Peace Prize for reaching out to the Muslim world, there are still plenty of situations where Obama and his administration are erroring on the side of caution, either through ignorance or a pragmatic pandering to American ignorance. This was a key opportunity to call for a reopening of the Pan Am 103 case, and recognize the obvious miscarriage of justice. Yet, this would only show the egg on our face if we were to admit that an innocent man was sent to prison and we lied in court to fuel support for war in Iraq. Justice and truth are ideals easily swept under the rug when power sees opportunity. When politics trumps principle, we have a problem; but in America, politics is always first: truth and the nation’s best interests are auxiliary at best. We deserve better.

Gavin Schmitt ( welcomes your hate mail, but will not tell you inconvenient truths about Mother Theresa to earn it.

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