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AFTER A FUNNY KIND OF CLOSURE
By Joe Brancatelli
July 15, 2010 -- On the day that BP finally gets a cap on the damned well, the media and U.S. politicians are apoplectic that Pan Am 103 bombing "mastermind" Abdel Baset al-Megrahi was traded back to Libya for oil.
Why is this surprising? Why is anyone shocked that BP lobbied the British and Scottish governments on al-Megrahi's behalf? Or that BP eventually got the Libyan oil gig?
Let's start with the obvious: al-Megrahi, a former Libyan intelligence agent, was the only man convicted in the conspiracy to bomb Pan Am 103. And even that conviction didn't come until 2001, more than a decade after the 1988 incident and, frankly, long after anyone except the families of the victims even seemed to care.
And it isn't as if Jack Straw, then British Justice Minister, hadn't long ago admitted that al-Megrahi was traded for oil and the best corporate interests of BP. This is what he said to the Daily Telegraph last September: al-Megrahi was "a very big part" of the oil deal. "I'm unapologetic. Libya was a rogue state. We wanted to bring it back into the fold. And, yes, that included trade because trade is an essential part of it and subsequently there was the BP deal."
So spare me the false outrage. It doesn't matter if al-Megrahi was only going to live for three months--the claim when he was released last year--or may live another 30 years. We didn't care about him last year, and, as I wrote in 2001, we didn't care about him, or Pan Am 103, when he was convicted.
Of course, what looked like closure when I wrote this in 2001 doesn't look like closure now. But does anyone but the families of the Pan Am 103 victims really care anymore?
FEBRUARY 1, 2001: A FUNNY KIND OF CLOSURE
It was almost noon yesterday when Fat Boy the Frequent Flyer dragged himself into a club lounge 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 their 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 talking 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, 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 from 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."
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ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
THE FINE PRINT All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.
This column is Copyright © 2010 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2010 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.