On 21 December 1988, I was making a seasonal visit to family in north Cumbria. As we finished our supper and began to clear the table, we heard an explosion and felt a shudder through both air and ground.
Over the next few hours, the terrible facts emerged. A bomb, placed in the baggage hold of Pan Am flight 103, had blown the aircraft out of the sky over the Scottish border town of Lockerbie, raining down debris, fire and death on that small, quiet community. Two hundred and seventy people died as a result of this act of terrorism.
As the magnitude of the catastrophe became clear in the days which followed, a guilty relief merged with my sense of horror. Thirty miles is no distance as a jet airliner flies and had the mid air explosion occurred even a minute earlier, the destruction wrought just across the River Esk could have been visited on any of the villages which lie between Penrith and Carlisle. Our proximity to the disaster has always unnerved me.
It is human nature to feel most acutely that which is nearest and Lockerbie has troubled my dreams many times during the last 20 years. But that is as nothing to the ongoing suffering of the families to whom death came so suddenly and with such appalling violence on that winter night.
It was with some sense of relief, therefore that the world heard, 13 years later, of the conviction of the Libyan intelligence officer, Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, for his part in this act of terrorism. A specially convened court of three Scottish judges sitting in the Hague sentenced al-Megrahi to life with a minimum tariff of 27 years.
Although it was evident that he could not have acted alone, there was a feeling that justice had been done and reparation would, in some part, be made.
Now, eight years into his sentence and terminally ill, al-Megrahi has been released so he may return to Libya and die with his family around him. There has been a huge outcry at this act of mercy on the part of the Scottish government.
The pain of the bereaved, the fact that al-Megrahi denied his victims the love-supported death now granted to him, the gloating exhibitionism of his reception in Libya and the possibilities of a trade deal having been done for the benefit of the UK, have all been cited in opposition to his release. There may be substance in all these arguments. But none of them take cognisance of the unique quality of mercy.
Mercy cannot be earned, it is never deserved (if it were, it would not be mercy) and it is not a quid pro quo. It is pure gift and whenever we exercise it, we come closer to the Divine nature.
In contradicting our instinct for revenge – itself a perversion of true justice – it challenges our society's spiritual illiteracy and our consequent inability to comprehend that what is right may be costly, not to our apparent advantage and at odds with worldly 'realism'.
The statement made by the Scottish Justice Minister, Kenny MacAskill, may have tended towards the dramatic and many have criticised him for making reference to a “higher power”.
But his words have a quality which has the capacity to raise our eyes to a truth above realpolitik. Reminding us that death is universal and non-negotiable and that the good society must operate on principle as well as pragmatism, the passage concerned is worth reading again: “Mr al-Megrahi faces a sentence imposed by a higher power. It is one that no court, in any jurisdiction, in any land, could revoke or overrule...Our justice system demands that judgement be imposed but compassion be available. Our beliefs dictate that justice be served but mercy be shown.”
Our culture finds the concept of compassion easier than that of mercy. They are related but not indivisible virtues. One may find it hard to feel compassion for al-Megrahi whilst still believing that he should be shown mercy. Compassion makes a claim on emotion, mercy on something sterner.
I have returned many times to the Sermon on the Mount whilst thinking about this article: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy”. These words of Jesus are so familiar that there is a danger of overlooking their transformative power. If we do not know the nature of mercy, it will not grow amongst us. And what is not known, can be neither practised nor received.
Mercy reflects God to us in a unique manner. It invites us to share in the wholeness for which we were created. If we permit ourselves to become caught up in the power games between Holyrood, Westminster, Washington and Tripoli, we will miss the truth.
© Jill Segger is a Quaker. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is Ekklesia's assistant editor. She is also a composer. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger