Compassion, the mark of civilisation

Scotland has infuriated the United States by returning the Lockerbie bomber to Libya on compassionate grounds. But the Americans are wrong here, and on two counts.

Lockerbie bomber returns to Libya — BBC. If you’ve been following Radio 4’s PM programme, you’ll have heard one of the parents of one of the US victims stating that no compassion should be shown to the Lockerbie bomber, because he showed none himself. But Scottish justice minister Mr MacAskill argued that the Scottish justice system required justice to be tempered with mercy, and that compassion should not (my paraphrase) only be given to those who themselves showed compassion.

The American view — forcibly put forward by Secretary of State Clinton, among many others, is that they had expected Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi to serve out his life sentence under Scottish law, and that no leniency should be shown. But they are factually and morally incorrect. Factually speaking, Megrahi was sentenced under a legal system that allowed for compassionate release of terminally ill prisoners. This was part of the Scottish legal system when he was sentenced, and could properly have been foreseen at the time. The US view clearly does not agree that compassion should be available to such as Megrahi, but to suggest that somehow the rules of the game have been changed by releasing him in this way is simply incorrect.

But, morally speaking, the American view — or, to be more exact, the view put forward by those speaking for America — that compassion is something which is deserved, and should not be made available where undeserved, is incoherent. It is the very essence of compassion that it is undeserved. Compassion which is deserved is not compassion, but merely justice.

Should we be compassionate? As a general mark of society, most people agree that we should. I’ve never heard people say “our society is too compassionate.” Generally speaking, we regret the compassionlessness of our modern world.

I didn’t lose a family member in the Lockerbie bombing, but I did lose a former friend. I don’t know whether Megrahi was the real Lockerbie bomber, or whether he was framed for a crime he did not commit. If he did commit it, I don’t know whether or not he has ever shown or felt remorse.

But none of these things have a direct relevance on the question of whether or not we should show compassion unearned, or whether we should only reserve it for the good, or the innocent, or the remorseful.

As a committed Christian, I believe that the line on compassion was drawn in the sand a very long time ago. As a democrat, and a Liberal-Democrat, I will argue to the end that it is exactly compassion which distinguishes our society both from anarchy and from tyranny.

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