A man lies dying in his bed, breathing with difficulty as the monitor to which he is linked records an uncertain heartbeat. His mother, her face stricken with grief, strokes his hand. Outside the house, his son, speaking in halting English, asks for compassion.
But that, of course, is the one commodity that this wretched man is denied. For the patient is the Libyan bomber, Abdul Baset Ali al-Megrahi, and he has the blood of 270 innocent people on his hands. Vilified on all sides — by the families of the Pan Am victims, by those who see him as the symbol of a discredited regime, by some who suspect the machinations that secured his release and by others who cannot forgive him for living so long — he is deprived of the basic humanity that should be the right of any dying man.
Al-Megrahi’s end, when it finally comes, drives home the futility of the Scottish government’s decision to release him. It claims to have exercised compassion in sending al-Megrahi home to die. Yet in death he is accorded none; instead he has been rendered an object either of curiosity or contempt. If, when the onset of his prostate cancer had been confirmed, the Scottish Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill, had done the right thing and moved him to a hospital bed in Scotland to die, al-Megrahi would indeed be ending his life with some dignity.
Instead, he has lingered on, long beyond his allotted time, so that even the government that secured his release finds him an embarrassment. Meanwhile, to campaigners and zealots alike, he has become a political football — kicked around by some who demand his release, by others who believe he should be seized and taken back to face his accusers.
This, by the standards of Western democracy and common humanity, is unworthy. Whatever his crimes, al-Megrahi should be allowed a decent death. The latest footage of him, screened by the BBC, should leave no one in doubt that he is nearing the end. This will, of course, do nothing to reduce the arguments about his case and about the atrocity itself. Nor should it. The anguish of the American families remains to be assuaged; we have not heard the last of the weasel attempts by various British agencies to ensure that he was returned to Libya by fair means or foul; there are Scottish documents that examine whether his conviction was safe or not.
The question of al-Megrahi’s guilt or innocence remains to be finally established. But the man himself is beyond this. His crimes will now be judged, as Mr MacAskill once said, “by a higher power”. Meanwhile, he should be allowed to die in peace.