Analysis: Lessons of Europe's history with terrorism


LONDON — The Scottish Parliament was recalled from its summer holidays Monday for an emergency debate on the government's decision to release convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi on "compassionate grounds." The dying 57-year-old returned home to a hero's welcome in Libya. 

The expressions of outrage from the United States, first from the families of the victims and then by President Barack Obama and most recently by FBI director Robert Mueller, raised a squall over the Atlantic. Scotland's opposition members of Parliament felt the need to add to the clamor. Scottish Justice minister Kenny MacAskill, using almost exactly the same words he used last Friday, sought to justify his decision again this week.

But the focus of the debate increasingly is on what deal over access to Libya's oil reserves the governments of the U.K. and Libya may or may not have struck in advance of MacAskill's decision. That the question is being asked is a sign of the sophistication — and the cynicism — of the public in Scotland and the rest of the U.K.  

People here and in the rest of Europe understand in a way most Americans do not that deals get done with terrorists all the time. This isn't done to reward terrorists for their actions. It is done for reasons of political expediency. Example: In October of 1993, an IRA bomber blew up a fish-and-chips shop on the Shankill Road in the heart of protestant Belfast. Nine people including the bomber were killed and 50 were wounded. Following tradition, Gerry Adams, who is the leader of the IRA's political wing, Sinn Fein, acted as a pallbearer at the bomber's funeral. The outrage expressed by the United Kingdom at Adams dwarfed anything associated with the Lockerbie case.

A few weeks later news reports hinted the British government had been involved in secret talks with the IRA.  

The British prime minister at the time, John Major, told Parliament it would turn his stomach to speak to such people ... not as much as his stomach turned when the news reports turned out to be true.  

Yet without those secret talks there would have been no IRA ceasefire, no Good Friday Agreement and Martin McGuinness, former IRA commander in Derry, would not be Northern Ireland's deputy first minister.

Along the way all paramilitary prisoners on both sides of the Northern Ireland divide, many of them convicted murderers, were released; each one to a howl of pain from the families and friends of their victims. And many of them with celebrations among their supporters that did not look much different from the welcoming received by al- Megrahi on the tarmac in Tripoli.

The long experience of terrorism around the continent produces similar examples and more importantly a sanguine attitude among Europeans to the post-terrorist atrocity rituals of government.  

The defiant statements, the color-coded terror alerts hardly raise a hackle. People have seen it all before: Terrorists strike, whether you trust your security services to infiltrate these groups or not, and the odds of being directly affected are microscopic.

Lost in the furor over al-Megrahi's release was the publication of the memoirs of former U.S. Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge. It provided headlines with its claim that the Bush administration manipulated the terrorist threat warnings in the run-up to the 2004 election to gain political advantage. At the time, many in Europe simply shook their heads at the gullibility of Americans taken in by such a transparent maneuver.

Lost also was the fact that some bereaved families, particularly those of the Scottish victims who died when the bombed plane crashed on their homes, came to accept the 2007 Scottish judicial reivew that found grounds for an appeal to this case. Al-Megrahi, who still maintains his innocence, surrendered his right to an appeal in accepting the Scottish court’s decision to release him on “compassionate grounds,” as his doctors say he has terminal cancer and only a few months left to live. In other words, thre are some shades of gray here that may be more perceptible to a European eye.

What most Europeans would like to teach their friends in America is the goal of terrorists is to disrupt society and bring fear. The best way to deal with it is not to be afraid and carry on with life as normal. 

Part of that normality is politicians doing deals. And if a few hundred families of the dead have to endure a second bereavement when a murderer is set free, the majority in European countries like the U.K. and Spain and France would say so be it. They would say this because they have already been through long struggles against terrorism and see their view not as appeasement, but resiliency. As they see it, it is the long math in a successful struggle against terrorism.

Of course, that won't make it any easier for the Lockerbie families if, as is being reported, next week at the 40th anniversary celebrations for the Libyan revolution al-Megrahi will be given a place of honor in the ceremonies. Nor will it ease the acute embarrassment of all the politicians on either side of the Atlantic directly or indirectly involved in the episode.