The Magnitude And Firstness of the Lockerbie Bombing

Adam Larson/Caustic Logic
March 9 2010
last edit March 10 2am

This post is for those too young to remember or too unclear or numbed to understand or feel the significance of the bombing of Pan Am 103 and the geopolitical maneuvers following it. At 7:00 PM on December 21, 1988, the darkest day of the year, Pan Am flight 103 was just reaching cruising altitude nearly six miles above southern Scotland. The Boeing 747 was carrying 243 passengers and a crew of sixteen, mostly returning home for Christmas. 38 minutes after they had left from London’s Heathrow airport to New York’s JFK, at a hair before 7:03, a bomb detonated in the forward cargo hold and ruptured the hull. What followed can best be understood by viewing this amazing and probably quite accurate animation:

Prior to the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington, the bombing of Pan Am 103 had stood as the deadliest ever terrorist attack on American civilians, and it still holds a distant second place. 270 people died in the attack, 189 of them Americans, including many military service members, college students, and young children. Eleven residents of Lockerbie, Scotland were killed when the main part of the plane plowed into the Sherwood Crescent neighborhood.

What followed the crash was “the largest mass murder trial in British history,” first covering the 800 sq. miles of debris and later the global mazes of a cross-border plot. [NYT] Naturally, the Scottish police backed by the American FBI and other US and UK agencies led the investigation.

The responsible airline, Pan American Airways, had been until the 1980s an American giant of aviation, the World Trade Center of the skies. After Lockerbie, they were vilified, bankrupted and destroyed by a string of lawsuits filed over their egregious security breaches at Frankfurt Airport. This doesn’t even count the still unacknowledged security breach at Heathrow that allowed the bomb to slip onto PA103 there.

The actual perpetrators were also pursued; “Lockerbie was perhaps the first truly global terrorism investigation.” [Time] This gave American and British authorities more people than usual to tell how things are. Germany, Malta, Jordan, Switzerland, and Sweden especially had significant roles in forming or following the investigation’s course. This had led to Libya with the joint Scots-American indictments of al Megrahi and Fhimah in November 1991.

After that the case moved to another level and witnessed, in 1992, the United Nations Security Council demanding the two accused be handed over for trial in the U.S. Sanctions were imposed when the demand was (inevitably) refused. “This is the first time the Security Council has ever demanded the extradition of citizens of one country to stand trial in another or implicitly accused a member government of involvement in terrorism.” [NYT] When the two accused were eventually handed over in 1999 for a compromise trial the Americans had prevented for years, obviously it was the first time such a demand was honored.

Alan Gerson was involved with pressing lawsuits against Libya for victims’ families, wrote a book with Jerry Adler (The Price of Terror, 2001) that explained a massive first - the unprecedented rulings and Congressional act establishing that a “rogue state” like Libya was exempt from the coverage of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, “a much bigger change than the families had ever sought, or perhaps needed.”
“Early on, Gerson and Zaid had intended merely to carve out the narrowest possible exception to the rule of sovereign immunity. […] they never sought to achieve a new world order based on the rule of law […] Instead the government got the FSIA amendment, which […] opened the doors for individuals to take on foreign governments for a much wider range of offenses, with consequences no one quite anticipated.” [p 295]
The way to suing foreign governments for alleged violence against Americans opened by these Lockerbie-led rulings has since been used in cases against Iran, Cuba, and other unloved nations, besides Libya.

The trial of Megrahi and Fhimah itself was held at “Kamp van Zeist” in “neutral” Netherlands. It was “the first time a patch of overseas soil has been designated Scottish to allow such an event.” [NYT] It was also perhaps the first time such a trial had been held in “a former NATO base to which the air force of the United States still had extant treaty rights of access.” [Robert Black]

Assorted firsts of the Lockerbie trial at Camp Zeist:
“… the first time a Scottish court has sat on foreign territory. Unusually, there was no jury.” [BBC]
“…the first Scottish murder trial to use judges instead of a jury. […] the first time a trial in what is nominally Britain has attracted the wide attention usually associated with the American courts." [NYT]
"'In many senses this trial is unique,' said John P. Grant, who leads a team of law professors from the University of Glasgow studying the trial and helping journalists understand Scottish law. 'It may become the longest trial in British history. It certainly will be the most expensive.'" [NYT]
“...the first time that LiveNote software has been used in a Scottish court to produce simultaneous transcripts; […] the most expensive and possibly the longest trial in Scottish legal history, employing the largest prosecution and investigation team without even including US Department of Justice personnel; […] held in what is quite possibly the most secure and most high-tech courthouse ever built." [Jurist]
The testimony of Libyan defector, CIA asset, FBI star witness, and obvious fabricator "Abdul Majid Giaka" was another first. As Gerson and Adler put it, “never before had the CIA permitted one of its intelligence sources to testify in open court about his work, and his testimony quickly showed why.” [p 282-83] The judges were forced to dismiss the tales that originally provided the skeleton of the case against Libya, while accepting the boneless mass that remained.

Following the guilty/not Guilty verdict of January 31 2001, Libya eventually negotiated a settlement with victims’ families – eventually settled in 2003 at $2.7 billion plus an admittedly hollow statement of “responsibility” for things Libyan agents actually do. Jim Kriendler of law firm Kriendler & Kriendler (New York), who represented some of the victim’s families (none too well says Gerson), called it “the first time that any of the states designated as sponsors of terrorism have offered compensation to families of terror victims." [UNWire] When Americans and the BBC use that agreement and mammoth settlement as evidence that the Libyans really did it, obviously that’s the first time such an original gesture was twisted in such a way.

In these and other ways, long before the controversial release and "Hero's welcome" granted to the "convicted bomber" in 2009, this Lockerbie attack and its long fallout are highly relevant and worthy of careful scrutiny. Considering the case underpinning all of the above is so full of questions, it becomes doubly so. It may stand nowhere near first among issues of global justice that demand action, but it's certainly one among many and a fascinating one at that.

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