09/28/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What Is Justice for Lockerbie?

Scotland freed the terminally ill Lockerbie bomber last week so he could die at home in Libya. "Our beliefs dictate that justice be served, but mercy be shown," a Scottish official said. Did Scotland do the right thing? Should we have any mercy for mass murderers who are terminally ill?

I have hesitated to comment on the release from Scottish prison of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, because there is no clear moral line that I can see. The facts are well known, and by now most people have made up their minds. But on what grounds? Of the 270 people killed in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103, 189 were U.S. citizens. Libya didn't formally admit to planting the bomb, yet the Qaddafi regime has paid $2.7 billion in restitution to the victims' families. Despite the assumption that the attack must have involved any number of conspirators, only Megrahi was convicted. He has always proclaimed his innocence, and some of the victims' families believe him while others call him a mass murderer.

All the moral choices are cloudy and tangled in this case. When the Scottish justice secretary decided to grant Megrahi a release -- the prisoner is in the final stages of advanced prostate cancer -- he cited "compassionate grounds." Even though Megrahi showed no mercy to his victims, the secretary said, Scotland was bound by its own values, which include mercy, not the values of the convicted criminal. This seems like a position Christians would endorse, but in the U.S. the teaching of "forgive your enemies" hasn't prevented avowed Christians on the right from being among the strongest advocates of the death penalty and harsh sentences for drug crimes. In a sense the justice secretary was using the term mercy in a very narrow sense. Pure mercy would have been not to send Megrahi to jail, an abhorrent choice to most people -- even Jesus speaks on both sides of the issue in the New Testament. Forgiveness is clouded by other references to punishment, both divine and secular. At one point Jesus even says, "I bring not peace but a sword." In many places he has no tolerance for sinners. Yet there's no doubt that forgiveness stands out as a major tenet of the faith.

So what is justice? On religious grounds an eye for an eye settles the matter for millions of devout believers, while others struggle between mercy and vengeance. That's why secular society has turned justice, for all practical purposes, into a technicality of the law. Whatever the law says to do, that is just, even when the law changes (thus the debate over the death penalty in this country has gone back and forth several times, with yes and no standing for justice if it happens to be in force). How are laws made? With great fickleness, depending on the public's mood, recent events, political ideology, legislative horse trading, racial and class prejudice, and religious tradition. The ideal of making the punishment fit the crime has been achieved only sporadically, and there are stretches of history, as when the courts upheld that escaped slaves should be returned to their masters, when the law has sided with gross immorality.

If I've described a tangled situation, it also happens to fit reality. It was more realistic for British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to wash his hands of the Lockerbie controversy and give it back to those in Scotland who made the decision than for President Obama to issue a blanket condemnation. The public doesn't agree, however, since as so often happens, those who cry for vengeance the loudest tend to win the most support. There is another path. Instead of wrestling with flawed choices, you can go deeply into how justice affects you.

As bystanders to tragedies like the Lockerbie disaster, you and I have no moral weight; we are outsiders. But we aren't outsiders in our own lives, where we face moral choices that are just as tangled as this one. When you go inward with honesty and clear sight, you see in yourself all the elements that clash here: mercy, anger, compassion, revenge, high-mindedness, impartiality, bias, and fairness exist side by side. Just this realization brings you out of the illusion that justice is simple. Then you have a choice to empathize with everyone concerned, and step by step you arrive at the ancient principle of non-violence as a living part of your own consciousness. Having achieved that stage, daily situations will look very different from how they look now. One sees that Jesus wasn't really contradicting himself -- a universal empathy allowed him to feel what it was like to be both the judge and the condemned. Until you and I expand beyond the narrow limits of our own consciousness, our moral judgments will be very imperfect. Seeing this, you can't help but stop judging other people so quickly, and at the same time, the desire to reach higher consciousness grows stronger, because that is the only way out of impossibly tangled questions.