The debate about the release of Al Megrahi is fascinating. I have no idea what I would have done if I were Scottish Secretary, but I do find the different uses of the word compassion worth exploring.
All the commentators from the USA who have been given air time in the UK have said things along the lines of, ‘Where was Megrahi’s compassion when he planted the bomb that blew up the plane.’ What has that got to do with anything? Surely compassion is a one-way thing, I don’t feel compassion as a kind of swap deal. I don’t say I’ll be compassionate towards you so long as you’ve been compassionate towards me.
From a UK perspective it is often remarkable how often Americans invoke a Christian God in their support and thank him for anything good that happens to them. I have no problem with that, though sometimes it is a bit weird when all the participants in a competition think that God will be working for them and some end up as winners and others as losers. What I do find strange is that all that teaching from Christ about turning the other cheek, about compassion, seems to have passed America bye. They only seem to have read the Old Testament – all that stuff about an eye for an eye.
The issue with Megrahi is that he was a man dying a long way from home. He may also have been a man who did awful things, that’s why he was in prison. It is perfectly OK to say that his crime was so awful that no consideration should be given under any circumstances to his release; but he was sentenced under Scottish law and within that law is a provision for the relevant government officer to exercise compassion. I guess it must have been possible for the prosecution to argue that the provisions for compassion should be rescinded in Megrahi’s case and his sentence should have been life with no provision for compassion. As far as I know they didn’t do that, or if they did the judges did not accept the plea. He was not sentenced to life without compassion.
Scottish law requires the Justice secretary to consider compassionate release when asked appropriately. Megrahi had the right to make that request, based on his condition and not his crime, just as he had other rights like not to be tortured or beaten up in prison. Because Scotland is a civilised country, prisoners have those rights, as they do in many countries. If we make compassion some sort of swap deal, something to trade, something that has conditions, then we risk ceasing to be one of those civilised countries.