It’s good to check from time to time how much a human life is worth these days. According to the recent Lockerbie bombing settlement, it’s about $10 million. Many of the families of victims of the 1987 attack on Pan Am Flight 103–most of them American–thought they would never see a penny in compensation, especially after Colonel Muammar Qaddafy, the erratic Libyan dictator, had already fulfilled the U.S. demand to hand over the perpetrators to stand trial.
Tough U.N. sanctions made sure the victims’ families would be compensated. As Shashi Tharoor of the U.N. recently pointed out in the journal Foreign Affairs, the Libya payout has demonstrated how much the U.N. can do for the United States that the United States cannot do for itself, at least not without great difficulty. Without the U.N., the United States would have faced the unfeasible task of convincing 190 countries to restrict trade bilaterally with Libya. The U.N. umbrella allowed the United States to kill 190 birds with one stone, in addition to issuing a powerful collective admonition to any state thinking about sponsoring terror.
The stern sanctions policy helped convince Libya to turn over the suspects to a Scottish court, and to provide a generous compensation settlement for the victims’ families. Libya has already put the money in escrow, and the U.N. is getting ready to lift sanctions.
Qaddafy is not remorseful. The settlement comes only as a result of an extremely persistent and somewhat hypocritical campaign of extortion by the West. Hypocritical because, when the USS Vincennes mistakenly shot down an Iranian plane in July 1988 (five months before the Lockerbie bombing) and 290 were killed, the U.S. government refused to accept any World Court settlement, then offered about $300,000 to each victim’s family. The incident was a tragic accident, not an act of state-sponsored terror, but presumably lives lost in inadvertent tragedy or premeditated terror are equally precious. So apparently the market for human life has seen some hyper-inflation. Or could it be a double standard?
The hounding of Libya also smacks of hypocrisy because of what it suggests about the rules of engagement for fighting a war against state-sponsored terrorism. Libya has a grave mark on its record, but Saudi Arabia, too, has some huge liabilities in its campaign to become a sincere partner in the war on terror: its harboring of terrorists, direct financial support of suicide bombers and indirect financial support for al-Qaeda, and its friendliness towards the Wahhabist Islam preached in its mosques. The White House feigns getting tough with the Saudis while rigorously censoring the release of any information unflattering to OPEC’s most important member, as the recently released Congressional joint inquiry on Sept. 11 security failures showed. Another double standard? America’s habit of having one set of principles for America and another set for the rest of the world has become the leading vice of U.S. foreign policy, and one of the leading gripes of our enemies, including the homocidal ones.
But there is an even larger issue here than American hypocrisy. That American foreign policy of the past quarter-century has been characterized by blowback–severe unanticipated repercussions–has been acknowledged by seemingly everyone but the framers of that policy. After Sept. 11, few in the Bush Department of Defense, laden with Reagan holdovers, wanted to discuss how the Taliban grew out of the mujahideen opposition created in Afghanistan by Congressman Charlie Wilson in the early 1980s with Reagan’s support. Blowback, and a whole culture of unwillingness to acknowledge it, has become a major national security threat.
Just look at history. At the same time the mujahideen were fighting to “liberate” Afghanistan, Reagan authorized an air strike on Qaddafy’s home in April 1986. Qaddafy escaped injury, but his daughter was killed. Two years later, the people of Lockerbie were picking plane shards and human limbs out of their backyards. Nobody wanted to say the motive was retaliation, yet an executive order against targeted killings of foreign leaders was quietly revived.
This prohibition has apparently been lifted again in Iraq. Saddam is a walking bull’s-eye. So were his sons. The motto now seems to be “All’s fair in love and war,” a fitting companion to this administration’s Manichean view of the community of nations. Saddam’s loyalists and immigrant jihadists will not be hesitant to reciprocate the view that decapitation of a regime brings results. They may not be able to get to George Bush, but they may be able to get to Paul Bremer. And if they can’t get to Paul Bremer, they can surely get to a lone American convoy somewhere in occupied Iraq.
The legacy of Lockerbie lives on.
Aaron Goode is a senior in Calhoun College.