Saturday, 6 November 2010

The Lockerbie bomb

In 1988 I had gone to spend Christmas with my parents, who lived in Penrith in the Lake District, about 25 miles from the Scottish border. On December 21st we were watching the local television channel, Border TV, which was not something we usually did. Suddenly and without any prior warning, a message was flashed up across the screen: “Major air disaster. All medical personnel report to Dumfries infirmary”. Shortly afterwards, there was a police notice, telling us that certain roads across the border were closed until further notice. We wondered what on earth had been happening. It was, of course, the bomb that blew up the airliner over Lockerbie. The next day I met a man who had been on a train going south, which had pulled out of Lockerbie station moments before. He described how they heard an enormous roaring sound behind them, and it was only when the train reached Carlisle that they learnt what had happened. (For those unfamiliar with the geography; all trains coming up on the west coast route from London and Manchester run through Penrith and Carlisle and over the Scottish border. Lockerbie is the next major junction on the line, with the western branch of the line running to Glasgow and the eastern branch to Edinburgh. Incidentally, Penrith is very close to the flight path, and if the bomb had detonated minutes earlier, it could have landed on us.)

It was not long before all sorts of conspiracy theories were emerging, outlining all sorts of elaborate and often wildly improbably stories about who might have been responsible, and these have continued to circulate ever since. I have no personal knowledge as to who was responsible for the Lockerbie bomb, but did experience a few interesting

It is often forgotten that around Easter 1986 American bombers took off from British airbases to bomb Tripoli, the capital of Libya, in retaliation for a terrorist bombing against American troops in Germany. The raid managed to kill President Gaddafi’s little stepdaughter, amongst others, but it was denied that the intention was to kill Gaddafi himself (“Why not? Why kill his subjects but not him?” would be my reaction). I happened to be on a school visit to Athens at the time, and I was reading an account of the bombing raid in an English-language newspaper when a young American peered over my shoulder and exclaimed, “Oh, I just LOVE that!” He seemed surprised that we didn’t all share his enthusiasm. One of the boys asked him if this could serve as a precedent for bombing Dublin in retaliation for any future IRA atrocities, but he didn’t get the point. “I think you already do enough against the Irish”, he said. I felt that if that was his level of political perception, there was no point in arguing with him. From this moment on, I expected some kind of retaliation: perhaps an air hijacking. Athens airport early the next morning was surrounded by armoured cars and guards with automatic weapons, but fortunately nothing untoward happened. It is surprising that, in the debates over the Lockerbie bomb, everyone seemed to have forgotten the bombing raid on Libya.

In the summer of that year I went on a tour of Egypt. Our guide was a Tunisian; very erudite but also extremely cynical. He did not at all approve of Islamic fundamentalism, but his comments about the American bombing of Libya were worth remembering. “Reagan’s a genius!” he exclaimed. “Everybody knows the Iranians and the Syrians cause a lot more terrorist attacks, but Iran’s too sensitive a place to go for, and who’s ever heard of the Syrian leader? But everyone hates Gaddafi. So you bomb Libya. Then all the Americans cancel their holidays abroad for fear of reprisals, and you save millions of dollars. I tell you, the man’s a genius!” (The comment about Americans cancelling holidays was correct. My parents up in the Lake told me that American tourists had been afraid to visit Wordworth’s Dove Cottage, for fear of Libyan reprisals.) The Lockerbie bombing was only a couple of years away…….

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