Saturday, August 22, 2009

Justice for whom?

The American and British Government are furious that the Scottish Government (is that an independent country?) have decided to release the Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi (who actions killed 270 people in a transatlantic airliner), on compassionate grounds. He was released after spending 8 years in jail. One can understand the pain it must cause to the surviving relatives of those who died, particularly as it now turns out, the 'compassionate grounds' were actually linked to lucrative oil deals with Libya. The British and Scottish Governments are busy trying to blame each other for what has turned into a diplomatic fiasco.

Ethical issues such as these are notoriously difficult to settle. Moreover, in most cases, there is no objective solution. Coincidentally at the same time as this release, I noticed a small news item on BBC -- Vietnam massacre soldier 'sorry'. It goes on to say that the the US army officer convicted for his part in the notorious My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War has offered his first public apology. It reports "Calley, 66, was convicted on 22 counts of murder for the 1968 massacre of 500 men, women and children in Vietnam."

And here's the rub.

He was sentenced to life in prison for his role in the killings in 1971. Then-US President Richard Nixon commuted his sentence to three years' house arrest.
Three years house arrest? For killing 500 people? And now he says he is sorry. Nobody asked the relatives of those 500 killed how they felt. In most cases the massacre was complete -- there were no relatives left to grieve over the dead. The Charlie Company of the US Army made sure they did a complete job. And presumably with a war going on, these men, women and children killed were so much 'collateral damage'. (You can see the details here.)

This post does not want to point fingers either at the Americans, the British or the Libyans. Any death is a tragedy and when hundreds die in a brief apocalyptic moment, it leaves a permanent scar on public consciousness. We still remember the Lockerbie bombing, we still remember (those of us who are old enough) the My Lai massacre. But our reactions are modulated by the affinity we feel for those who have died.

That's human nature.


AmOK said...

Calley was tried by his own army. Do/did you expect Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi to be tried by his own country? The analogy is not perfect. Yes, Nixon should not have commuted the sentence.

Incidentally, why is it okay to kill and eat innocent fish?

Rahul Basu said...

It was not meant to be an analogy.
The issue is not who sentenced. But how upset we feel about the accused getting away without 'paying for his sins'. If you see the My Lai report that I quoted, every one of the soldiers got away scot-free and Calley was the only one who got sentenced, that too on a much weaker charge.

What you are saying perhaps is that the system of justice in the US (howsoever imperfect) is better than that in Libya. Of course it is. But that was not the point of the post. And if you are going to start comparing justice systems in democracies with some of these Middle Eastern kingdoms, you aren't asking for much, are you?

AmOK said...

OLO -- you are right. Not punishing Calley will be strongly protested by the Vietnamese, in principle, and the Vietnamese will themselves not feel too strongly about the Lockerbie case, if at all. These pale in comparison to the Congo . So I am still struggling to grasp the point of your Post. I concur, i.e., "We hold these truths to be tautologically self-evident...".

Anant said...

There is a key difference: Calley admits his guilt, but it is not clear that al-Megrahi is really guilty, see the following from BBC.