The Brancatelli File



The news was buried by last week's blackout, but Libya has finally taken responsibility for the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. After more than 14 years of denials, Muammar Qaddafi's regime has vaguely, but undeniably, admitted to the United Nations that it was involved in the murder of 270 passengers over Lockerbie, Scotland.

Sadly, the reception given to the news of the Libyan admission was as tepid as the response to the trial two years ago of two Libyans accused of being the bombers. This ennui shocked me, just as it shocked me when the news of the conviction of one of the men was ignored. After all, blowing Pan Am 103 out of the skies was one of the most notorious and frightening acts of terrorism in travel history.

Yet, somehow, most of us have forgotten. Lockerbie seems like a lifetime or two ago. Here's what I wrote after the news of the conviction. I feel the same kind of numbness and confusion now that we know for sure that a government helped plan the bombing of a commercial airliner and was complicit in the cold-blooded murder of 270 travelers.

February 1, 2001 -- It was almost noon yesterday when Fat Boy the Frequent Flyer dragged himself into one of the lounges at Fiumicino Airport in Rome. Nothing out of the ordinary, he thought: The usual gaggle of Italians talking into their cellulari and gesturing madly; a few Germans and Scandinavians tucked away behind newspapers; and the odd Brit and even odder American hidden away in private corners, nursing coffees and Coca-Colas.

Just another day at the airport, Fat Boy told himself. Just another morning in another club full of another set of world-weary, bone-tired frequent flyers.

But then he remembered. There should have been a verdict by now.

Fat Boy had heard it on television in his hotel room as he was packing up his briefcase and his laptop. It had come like a thunderbolt from the past, incongruously sandwiched between speculation about a Federal Reserve rate cut and a Super Bowl rehash. The television said that the three Scottish judges presiding over the Lockerbie trial promised to announce their decision sometime during the morning.

Lockerbie. When was the last time he even heard a frequent flyer talk about it? Two hundred and seventy dead, but it seemed the whole world had moved on. It was such as long, long time ago, just a few days before Christmas of 1988, that Pam Am Flight 103 was blown from the skies.

Fat Boy tried hard to remember. Somehow, he'd forgotten almost everything he ever knew about Lockerbie. The who, the what, the why, the politics. He'd even forgotten about the trial itself, which had dragged on for nine months in some place called Camp Zeist. The judges wouldn't let the trial be televised and it disappeared from public view. Out of sight, out of mind. Or something less callous. But, anyway, he'd forgotten all about Lockerbie until the TV report.

Fat Boy looked around the room and found a television. It was tuned to some silly Italian game show. But over in the corner, hidden away, was a second TV. This one was tuned to CNN International. Fat Boy wandered over. The only other frequent flyer nearby looked up at him, but not at the TV.

The anchor was talking to a British journalist. He was rattling on about some obscure point of Scottish law, the legal system adopted for the trial after a surreal set of negotiations between the British, the Americans and the Libyans. The anchor asked another question. Another answer that seemed to say nothing. What happened, Fat Boy wondered. What the hell was the verdict?

Fat Boy must have been talking out loud because the frequent flyer sitting near the television looked up again. "One convicted, one acquitted," said the man, an American from the sound of his flat, Midwestern accent.

"Excuse me?" said Fat Boy the Frequent Flyer. "Did you say one convicted and one acquitted? Did the judges say anything about whether they concluded it was some form of state-sponsored Libyan terrorism?"

"Dunno," said the American, who didn't even look up from the crossword puzzle this time. "I was watching for a while, but I lost interest. It's all so anti-climactic."

Fat Boy turned back to the TV screen in time to see a CNN correspondent outside of Camp Zeist, wherever the hell that was. It looked cold and gray and the correspondent was wearing a fluffy down coat. But he was interviewing a man wearing only a sport coat. There was a large button on his coat. There was the picture of a woman's face on the button. From what the man in the sports coat was saying, Fat Boy realized he was the father of the woman whose face was on the button. She must have been one of the innocent people who died in the Pan Am 103 disaster.

Fat Boy the Frequent Flyer watched for a long time, but he was the only one who seemed interested. CNN was doing a decent enough job. They were interviewing relatives of the victims, the Libyan Ambassador to the United Nations, experts in Scottish law, even the proverbial man on the street in Lockerbie.

Then Fat Boy heard something from behind him. One of the other frequent flyers in the club had made his way over to the television.

"Funny kind of closure," the man said to no one in particular.

"I'm sorry, what did you say?" Fat Boy asked.

"I didn't mean to be insensitive," the man, who sounded British, replied with a little edge in his voice. "I feel tremendously for the families of the victims. In Britain, we've lived with Lockerbie for more than a decade. But this is a bit surreal, don't you think? A secret trial and then this verdict. It doesn't prove anything. So what if one thug is convicted? He didn't do it alone. Others were surely involved. They won't be brought to justice. None of it will bring those poor people back."

For some reason, Fat Boy the Frequent Flyer remembered a cabinet filled with clips back at his office. A dozen years of Lockerbie stories cut out of magazines and newspapers and culled off the news wires. Charges. Countercharges. Human tragedy intermingled with conspiracy theories. A dozen years of politics and maneuvering and compromises and negotiating, all leading to a trial that no one saw and that almost no one could connect with now that it was all over.

"I don't know," Fat Boy the Frequent Flyer said after a while. "I just feel so removed from it all. I'm ashamed. Pam Am 103 changed everything. Innocent people died. But, now..." "Now we move on," said the British man. "As I said, it's a funny kind of closure, but there it is."

This column originally appeared at

Copyright 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.