Stephanie Bernstein, a rabbi in Bethesda, Maryland, has been one of the most outspoken victims of the Lockerbie bombing. Her husband Michael was among the 259 on the plane killed when Pan Am Flight 103 was blown up over the Scottish town in 1988. As she welcomes me into her home she talks about her 14 years of marriage to Mr. Bernstein, an American attorney whose job was to find and deport Nazis who entered the US illegally after World War II.
She has followed the Libya uprising closely. Just hours ago the Libyan Justice Minister, who resigned in protest of Muammar Gaddafi's attacks on his own population, said he had proof that the Libyan dictator was the one who ordered the Lockerbie attack. She says "that is exactly what we have been saying for years. It is no surprise; Libya is a police state, nothing happens there without Gaddafi's approval."
Rabbi Bernstein explains that the attitude of western governments, in particular the American and British governments, towards the victims of Lockerbie is revealing of the way the west has dealt with Muammar Gaddafi. In 2009, Abdel Basset al Megrahi, the perpetrator of the bombing, was released from a Scottish prison on humanitarian grounds. WikiLeaks documents suggested that Libya had threatened the UK with cutting economic ties and taking reprisals against British diplomats in Libya if Megrahi was not released, and that Britain had green-lighted Megrahis' return to his country. She remembers being less shocked by the hero's welcome Megrahi received than by the fact that someone accused of 270 deaths could walk out of jail after serving only eight years. In less than a decade, Gaddafi has gone from pariah to friend of western states; he has accepted responsibility for Lockerbie, agreed to pay $2.7 billion in compensation to the victims' families, and renounced his arms program. In return the international community has rewarded the regime, sanctions to Libya were lifted, and in 2003 the country became chair of the UN Human Rights Commission.
Lockerbie families protested on several occasions but were told by the American and the British government that "by being close to Gaddafi, he will somehow be reformed." But Bernstein says that the week's events in Libya have shown the world that this is not true: "Gaddafi will stop at nothing, he will kill children, he will kill his own citizens, he doesn't care."
The Rabbi always saw in the eccentricities reported about Gaddafi a dangerous way to divert attention from the fact that he is shrewd, smart, and dangerous. The suburban mother of two has spent years trying to get information on Libya's human rights abuses. She knows dozens of Libyans who live in the United States and oppose the current regime, and is also in contact with activists there. Her goal is to have Muammar Gaddafi held accountable for his crimes, including the one against her husband. And this revolution has given her new hope, hope she had lost with the passing of years.
"All those people in the diplomatic world who thought somehow he would be a modern progressive leader should be ashamed of themselves. I understand it is complicated and it has to do with oil, but we have to say at some point there are more important things in life. People have a right to live in freedom, they have a right not to be afraid. When we make it possible for a brutal dictator to stay in power and oppress his own people we are complicit."