Saturday, 15 October 2016

Lessons from Syracuse

[This is the headline over a thoughtful editorial published today on the website of The Roanoke Times (Virginia, USA). Regrettably, it does not mention the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission’s conclusion that the conviction of Abdelbaset Megrahi may have constituted a miscarriage of justice. But it is otherwise well worth reading:]

Virginia Tech’s football team plays today at Syracuse University.

Coach Justin Fuente’s squad will probably be too busy to do much sight-seeing, but any Hokie fans making the trip north may want to walk across campus until they find the Hall of Languages Building.

There, on the grounds outside, they will also find a semi-circular arc of limestone and granite, on which are inscribed 35 names and the inscription: “This place of remembrance is dedicated to the memory of the thirty-five students enrolled in Syracuse University’s Division of International Programs Abroad who were among two hundred and seventy killed on December 21, 1988 over Lockerbie, Scotland in a plane crash.”

Then, underneath that, the sentence continues: “Caused by a terrorist bomb.”

The loss of Pan Am Flight 103 caused heartbreak across the globe. The flight manifest listed passengers and crew members from 24 countries – although most were Americans, and the contingent of Syracuse students returning home for the holidays after a semester abroad made the loss especially poignant.

Nearly three decades later, those hearts are still broken, but what happened that winter evening over Scotland continues to reverberate today — even in this year’s presidential election.

Here’s how: Terrorists in the 1980s sometimes targeted airlines, but generally not American ones. When Pan Am 103 took off from Frankfurt that morning for the first leg of its flight to London and then New York and Detroit, only one other US-bound American airliner had ever been targeted — and that attempt had managed to kill just one person, with the plane landing safely.

So when the Clipper Maid of the Seas — as the aircraft was named — disintegrated over Scotland at 7:02 p.m., we entered a new era of national insecurity.

The initial analysis by the Central Intelligence Agency focused on two possible suspects.

One was Iran. That made sense: Just months before, American forces in the Persian Gulf had accidentally shot down an Iranian airliner, killing all aboard. Revenge seemed a likely motive.

The other was the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine — presumably hoping to disrupt some early talks between the United States and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

As it turns out, neither hunch was right. One relevant lesson to be drawn from that: Maybe it’s a good thing we didn’t have a commander-in-chief inclined to shoot first and ask questions later.

More than a thousand British soldiers and police officers spent months going over the crash site on their hands and knees, looking for fragments.

“If it isn’t growing and it isn’t a rock, pick it up,” they were instructed. From this painstaking search came fragments of the suitcase that carried the bomb, and the remnants of the clothing it was wrapped in — specifically a pair of size-34 Yorkie-brand men’s trousers with the label “Made in Malta.”

Investigators called on Yorkie’s main outlet in Malta, where the owner remembered selling just such a pair of trousers in December 1988 to a man with a Libyan accent. The customer stood out, the owner remembered, because he didn’t seem to care what he was buying. He also had bought an odd assortment of other clothes — pieces of which were all found at Lockerbie.

Through that, and other clues, investigators eventually laid the blame on Libya — and the government of strongman Muammar Gaddafi. Libya, of course, had its own reasons to bomb a US airliner; revenge for the 1986 US bombing raid which, in return, was retaliation for a Libyan bombing of a West Berlin nightclub that had killed two American service members. All those tiny clues were serendipitous: If the plane had taken off on time from London, it would have been over the ocean when the bomb’s timer went off.

In November 1991 — three years after the plane went down — the FBI issued arrest warrants for two Libyan intelligence officers, essentially accusing Libya of state-sponsored terrorism.

Here’s a question: Why didn’t the United States go to war against Libya in 1991? When Libya killed two Americans in 1986, Ronald Reagan had sent bombers; when Libyans killed 188 Americans at Lockerbie, George H W Bush sent only arrest warrants. Feel free to debate what we should have done differently — or ought to do today if such a thing happened.

Instead, here’s how things played out: Gaddafi denied it all but eventually began reconciling with the West. He turned over the two agents to Britain in 1999 for trial; one was convicted, one was acquitted. Libya finally admitted involvement and paid compensation. In 2006, the US dropped Libya from its list of countries that support terrorism and restored diplomatic ties. Oh, and Libya also halted its nuclear weapons program – a key diplomatic victory for the administration of George W Bush that he probably doesn’t get enough credit for.

Here’s why all this matters today: When the Arab Spring revolts spread to Libya in 2011, the United States and key European allies sided with the rebels. Gaddafi tried to argue that the West should support him; hadn’t he done what the West wanted and disarmed his nuclear program? Instead, we bombed him. Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton boasted: “We came, we saw, he died.”

Viewed one way, Clinton (and President Obama) should get credit for doing what George H W Bush had failed to do in the 1990s: Taking out a dictator who had blown up an American airliner. That’s a notch on the belt on a par with Bin Laden, and ought to be a muscular talking point for a potential commander-in-chief.

Except for two things.

Firstly, our role in ousting Gaddafi sent exactly the wrong signal to Iran and North Korea: See, here’s why we need nuclear weapons. If Gaddafi had kept his nukes, maybe he’d still be alive today.

Secondly, what followed Gaddafi’s ouster was, as we now know, mostly chaos — first in Benghazi and today in a failed state that is a safe haven for Islamic State terrorists. That, of course, raises the uncomfortable question similar to the one often asked about the American invasion of Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein: Would the world be safer today if we’d let the killer of all those Americans on Flight 103 stay in place?

That’s a pretty horrible trade-off to contemplate, but it’s one that presidents often have to think about. You can think about it, too, as you watch Virginia Tech play Syracuse.


  1. Oh God not again. "If the plane had taken off on time from London, it would have been over the ocean when the bomb's timer went off."


    This is actually quite important. John Stapleton made a mistake on the morning after the disaster when he failed to appreciate the difference between the advertised gate departure time and the "wheels up" time, which is inevitably, obviously 15 to 25 minutes longer - sometimes more. Maid of the Seas was wheels up 25 minutes after her advertised gate departure time which is absolutely par for the course. The absolute earliest she could have been was ten minutes earlier. Ten extra minutes would have taken the flight over Glasgow, not the Atlantic Ocean.

    If the flight had actually been late, even by only 40 minutes, the bomb would have gone off harmlessly on the tarmac - if it was indeed a countdown timer.

    Who would set a countdown timer to go off so early in a transatlantic flight when setting it four or five hours later would have allowed it to get well over the Atlantic before exploding, even with a couple of hours leeway for delays.

    So why did the plane blow up so early? One obvious possibility is that it wasn't a countdown timer that was used.

    I'm sick and tired of this lazy "the plane was late". It fudges the issue and allows people to go on believing in the highly improbable countdown timer proposition.

  2. "Libya finally admitted involvement and paid compensation"

    Accepting responsibility (as Saif Al Islam did) to have sanctions lifted and admitting involvement are 2 totally different things. Just as the late take off myth needs to squashed this one does also as Libya never admitted any responsibility for lockerbie.