By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 21, 2009
Twenty-one years later, the families of those killed in the terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, are still searching, not for closure but for a sense of what is right.
So when Scottish authorities on Thursday released cancer-stricken Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi -- the sole person convicted after the flight's explosion -- from prison despite his life sentence, Anastasios Vrenios, 68, a singing teacher in Northwest Washington, and Stephanie Bernstein, 58, a Bethesda rabbi, both thought about the nature of mercy. They came to very different conclusions.
Vrenios, whose son Nicholas was a passenger on Flight 103, is unbothered by the release of Megrahi, who was convicted in 2001. Vrenios said the terrorist merits a special mercy because of his grave prognosis. And continued imprisonment does nothing to eradicate terrorism, he argues.
"I am thinking as a decent human being," Vrenios said. "Let the man go and die in his own country -- he's dying anyhow. I am not going to say: 'How dare you? Let's go blow his head off.' It's the ill that has to be cured, and that's a far more serious matter. I am just so disillusioned by man and the kind of thing he can resort to in this world."
But Bernstein, whose husband, Michael, a lawyer with the Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations, was killed in the attack, worries that flying Megrahi home to Libya so he can live out his final days with family violates both a biblical sense of justice and a promise made by the court system that convicted him.
Bernstein has been tracking Megrahi's case for weeks, trying to persuade the Obama administration to strong-arm the Scottish government to keep Megrahi imprisoned.
"Releasing him sends the wrong message," she said. "It will be seen by [Libyan president] Col. Moammar Gaddafi as a sign of weakness. If we don't try to work towards a just world, what good is this release?"
The bombing of the Pan Am flight killed 11 people on the ground in Lockerbie and all 259 passengers and crew members, 11 of whom hailed from the greater Washington region: seven from suburban Maryland, along with another from Baltimore, two from Northern Virginia and one from the District. Several of the passengers were Syracuse University students returning from a semester in England, among them Vrenios's son, Nicholas, 20, a budding photojournalist.
The father, who spends his days providing voice lessons at his Chevy Chase home, is still emotionally tethered to the crash and the crash site. A photograph of his son that investigators found near the plane's wreckage on the forest floor has a place of honor in a hallway of his home. Yet Vrenios cannot muster the passion for vengeance that he sees in some other crash victims' relatives. Yes, he believes, what happened was horrid; he just doesn't think Megrahi's fate matters in the broader measure of why human beings are so prone to destroying one another.
"The whole thing is so dastardly and so unnatural and so awful," Vrenios said. Considering the fate of a single criminal seems hardly relevant when "you're dealing with a situation that is global. . . . I don't know how to put that in any equation. Keeping him in prison is not going to cure the illness that this whole thing is an example of, the killings and murders and the things that go on in mankind."
Bernstein, who said she lobbied Scottish officials directly via video conference to keep Megrahi in prison, said the convicted bomber already received his mercy -- in prison. She argued that setting him free would represent not mercy but a political deal between the Libyan and British governments. "There's a way to treat someone without releasing them," Bernstein said. "He had been receiving palliative care. I have no problem with that. But we also have to ask ourselves, 'If this was [Osama] bin Laden, would you and I even be talking? Maybe because bin Laden is not sitting on oil."
Vrenios has come to believe that he must decide to be one of two people: "You have a choice in life, don't you? You can either be bitter and let it turn you inside out . . . turn you into a bitter human being. Or you can let it go. You don't forgive the act. But you don't become a vindictive human being so that it sends out poison to other people. Maybe it's a Christian thing."
Still, he wonders whether his views have softened with time. "It's been over 20 years," said Vrenios, who has separated from his wife since the attack. "We've had to go on with our lives."
Bernstein, who was ordained as a rabbi this year, traced her approach to mercy to the Torah. "It's in Deuteronomy," she said. "If we're not committed to following the rule of law, how can we say that we're working toward a world that is just?"
With that, she had to hang up the phone. She was at Dulles International Airport, waiting for her daughter Sara's plane to land.