Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Last Flight of Pan Am 103

When this day dawned 25 years ago, Americans really weren't thinking much about terrorism.

We were naive about what was happening in the rest of the world. We had been through the hostage crisis in Iran, but it ended with no loss of life — except for a few servicemen who died in an aborted rescue attempt — and we had gone through the next several years without any disruptions in our daily lives.

There were isolated instances of terrorism that involved some Americans, but they were few and relatively far between. In the 1980s, it had been easy for Americans to pretend that the world's problems were not our own.

That is ... it was easy until 25 years ago today when a Pan Am flight, en route from London to New York, was blown out of the sky over Lockerbie, Scotland.

Lockerbie is a tiny town in southwest Scotland. It has existed for more than 1,000 years, but few people ever heard of it until Dec. 21, 1988 when debris from Pan Am Flight 103 rained down on it. Eleven residents of Lockerbie died along with the 259 people on board the flight. Americans accounted for more than two–thirds of the casualties.

Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi took responsibility for the bombing and paid compensation to the victims' families but denied ordering the attack.

In part because of that ambiguity, there have been a number of persistent questions about the bombing that have gained some traction with the public over the years. There are many who believe the whole story will never be known, and I am one of them.

After 25 years, what is known is relatively little, and both emotion and speculation have been rampant at times.

It has been fairly well established that a suitcase bomb detonated on the plane, sending it back to earth, and the record will show that a Libyan intelligence agent, Abdelbeset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi, was tried and convicted in connection with it.

But that is about the extent of it.

Much like the Kennedy assassination 50 years ago, there were elements of the event that looked suspicious. Many of them may have been coincidental, but, after all the time that has passed, it seems unlikely that we will ever know the truth.

For example, one thing that has never been satisfactorily explained (as far as I am concerned, anyway) is the fact that there were at least four officials from the U.S. government who were on board the plane. According to unconfirmed rumors, there was actually a fifth official on the plane.

One of those officials was with the CIA. Another was with the DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency) — two others were Diplomatic Security Service agents acting as bodyguards.

Perhaps their presence on the plane was a coincidence, but it is easy to see how a conspiracy theory could come from it. There had been several confrontations between the U.S. Navy and Libya in the Gulf of Sidra (which Libya claimed as its territorial waters) during the 1980s. The Libyans avenged some incidents, but Gadhafi harbored a lingering resentment for what he saw as ongoing acts of aggression against Libya by the French and Americans.

Perhaps the bombing of Flight 103 was intended to avenge a perceived act of aggression.

Megrahi was the only person ever tried for the bombing, and he was given a compassionate release from prison in 2009 because he had terminal prostate cancer and was only expected to live for three months. The decision generated some controversy, which was revisited when Megrahi survived the prognosis by a couple of years.

Gadhafi died more than two years ago. Megrahi died in 2012. If they had anything more to tell us, they took it to their graves.

The mystery surrounding what happened to Flight 103 continues.

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