Abdel Baset al-Megrahi was released from prison in Scotland yesterday on compassionate grounds - he is dying of cancer. He is being returned to his family in Libya. 8 years ago he was convicted for the destruction of PanAm flight 103 which crashed into Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 human beings. Some of the families are now expressing their outrage at the scottish court's decision to release him.
I believe I can understand some of the emotions this brings up. I do not claim to have experiential knowledge of other people's grief, but I know the depth of my own attachment to my loved ones and I can imagine how soul-destroying their sudden death would be for me. I would never expect those wounds to heal, and I would certainly not expect anyone to "get over it." I am perplexed, though, by the way in which grief becomes a hunger for vengeance in some people and not in others.
Some people just seem to get it. They know that their loss is a debt that can never be repaid. They know that no earthly judgment, or prison term, or execution could ever be even the beginning of restitution for their dead child. In fact it is the opposite. Anger burns. Fueling that fire with thoughts of vengeance just makes it burn more.
No one knows the truth behind the Lockerbie tragedy. It is unlikely Megrahi was working alone. Many believe that he was a sacrificial lamb offered up by Libya to avoid further scrutiny. Even if Megrahi were imprisoned for the rest of his life, even if he were executed, there would still be no certainty that capital-J justice was served.
Furthermore, his conviction was not a matter of restitution for the families of the dead. He was tried by the state for crimes against society. Modern criminal courts do not serve the interests of the victims. They serve the interests of the society, protecting citizens from the destructive actions of individuals acting against the laws. If there was an interest for the court to keep Megrahi in jail it was that his release represented a danger to society - NOT that it was the desire of the families of the victims.
However, even if our courts were mere lynch mobs serving the interests of victims, and even if we had absolute certainty that Megrahi were solely responsible for the murders at Lockerbie... even then how would his being eternally imprisoned (or executed) make the loss of a child or husband or sister an ounce more tolerable?
One of the family members said something which gets right to the heart of why many Christians believe in hell: " looks like it never happened now — there isn't anybody in prison for it." If somebody isn't being punished it's like the crime itself vanished. The visibility of the crime matters - because it was the crime that stole the beloved away. The crime, the wound, has filled the place the beloved once held and if the crime disappears then you've been robbed twice. You're left with a wound, but no sign of the nail that pierced you.
Isn't this the scandal of grace? Isn't this why people insist that God is actually a very violent judge tossing people into the inferno? So the crime will be remembered eternally. So you'll never be robbed of your status as a victim. So when people see your wounds you'll be able to point to the nails.
It's hard to swallow this: "I am the one who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more." (Isaiah 43:25)