The Blog

Scotland's Shame

Gordon Brown shares some responsibility for the release of the Lockerbie terrorist.

3:30 PM, Aug 26, 2009 • By IRWIN M. STELZER
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Eleven and one-half days. That's how much prison time columnist Charles Krauthammer reckons Libyan terrorist Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi served for each of the 270 people he murdered when he planted the bomb that blew Pan Am flight 103 out of the skies. Nothing like the 27 years to which Megrahi was sentenced. But the terrorist has terminal prostate cancer, or so the doctors say, so the Scottish authorities decided "compassion" and "Scottish values" dictated his release and return to Libya, where he formerly served as an intelligence agent.

American outrage at the decision of Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill's decision to ignore the pleas of President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and allow Megrahi to return to Libya in time for Ramadan, and to a hero's welcome, was predictable. But nevertheless it seems to have come as a surprise to Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), which wants to break free from the United Kingdom and become an independent country -- taking the North Sea oil with it, of course. Salmond says that the relationship with the United States will be unaffected by the decision, and will remain "strong and enduring." He might be counting on the millions of Americans who claim Scottish descent, and the 50-member Friends of Scotland Caucus in Congress, which has its own tartan. Never mind that this is the same Scottish leader whom the Financial Times reports has "criticized the folksy 'whisky-and-shortbread' image of Scotland among their American cousins."

The large Scottish-origin population might reduce the fall-out from the Scots' display of "compassion" and their particular "values." But not soon, and not certainly, since Americans by and large, whatever their origin, are not sympathetic to the release of a terrorist who slaughtered so many of their fellow citizens. Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), the Senate's point man on the issue, along with Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) have asked British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to mount an inquiry to determine just how this decision was made, and why. That won't happen: Brown wants this whole thing to become old news as soon as the vigorous British press will permit, and has confined himself to a statement yesterday that he is "angry and repulsed" by the hero's welcome that Qaddafi organized after solemnly promising Brown and MacAskill not to do just that.

More important to both our country and to the UK, the security services are re-examining their relationship with their counterparts both in Scotland and in England. For the decision to release Magrahi is only the latest thumb in the eye of U.S. security services. The British government has refused to extradite six suspected terrorists, including a Saudi wanted in connection with bomb attacks on U.S. embassies. Remember: This is the same British government that raised no objection when British businessmen were extradited to face trial in the United States on charges of violating antitrust laws and other statutes. Apparently, Scottish desire to show compassion to a mass murderer is matched by British desire to keep wanted terrorists from facing justice in U.S. courts.

There is also a boycott of Scottish goods being promoted on the Internet, and not only by families of the 189 Americans murdered by the Libyan terrorist. According to the BBC, visitors from the United States last year accounted for 340,000 trips to Scotland and, reports VisitScotland spent £260 million, 21% of all spending by people from outside the UK. The number of Americans cancelling trips is increasing, but whether the total will in the end make a significant dent in the Scottish economy is not yet known. All in all, Americans, who constitute Scotland's largest export market, spend almost $4.5 billion on Scottish goods and services, much of that on whiskey that can be replaced with Canadian and Irish products, I am told, but even more on financial services. Given the shaky nature of the financial system, cutting ties with the Royal Bank of Scotland, which has a substantial presence in the United States, might be more trouble than it is worth.

Salmond also says there was no commercial quid pro quo for the release of Megrahi. He is joined in this denial by Foreign Secretary David Miliband, who calls any such talk "a slur both on myself and the Government." And by Lord (Peter) Mandelson, by far the most powerful minister in the Brown cabinet, fresh from his Corfu vacation at which he discussed the Megrahi case with Colonel Qaddafi's son, Seil al-Islam, but at which no specific linkage to a trade deal was mentioned. Even to imply such a thing, says his Lordship, would be "quite offensive." So I won't.