As I sat watching Kenny MacAskill trying to persuade the Scottish Parliament that he’d done the right thing by releasing the Lockerbie bomber, I kept remembering the face of Shannon Davis. It was an image I first encountered ten years ago while working on a television documentary on the effects of the atrocity. Shannon was a bright nineteen-year-old from Connecticut, a student at Syracuse University, and one of the 270 people who died when Pan Am 103 blew apart over Lockerbie in December 1988. I’ve seen many images from the Lockerbie calamity since but none has stayed with me like the picture of Shannon’s pretty, smiling face.
I’m still not sure why Shannon haunts me the way she does. Maybe it’s because I have a daughter who was roughly Shannon’s age in 1988, who’d been to school in the USA and returned with a broad American accent. Maybe it was because Shannon and her pals had enjoyed themselves wandering around my home city of Edinburgh in the weeks before they boarded Pan Am 103. Maybe it was because I’d spent an evening with Shannon’s mother Jane who had conjured up a vivid, loving picture of her younger daughter.
Maybe it was because there was a terrible twist to Jane Davis’s grief, because it was she who’d persuaded Shannon to make the fatal trip. Earlier that year Jane’s husband had been killed in a road accident in Saudi Arabia and Shannon had decided that the family was too hard-up to spend money sending her to Europe. ‘In fact she’d crumpled up the application form and thrown it in the trash,’ Jane told us. ‘I fished it out and told her that she had to go because that’s what her dad would have wanted for her. I’ve got to live with that.’
After MacAskill’s decision – and the outrageous but entirely predictable hero’s welcome accorded to Megrahi in Tripoli – I spent some time trying to contact Jane Davis to find out how she felt. In the end, my telephone search failed, but I was pretty sure that she’d be hurting, that the events in Scotland would have opened wounds that had never closed. Almost all the American families who were contacted by the British media were outraged by what they saw as MacAskill’s misguided and feeble decision.
They were not alone. The Scottish press, and particularly the red-tops, were strident in their denunciation of MacAskill. The Scottish edition of The Sun gave over its front page to one word – ‘abomination’. The Daily Express made the telling calculation that the length of Megrahi’s sentence worked out at two weeks for every victim. Opposition politicians in Holyrood waded in claiming that, had they been in power, Megrahi would have stayed in jail. And Alex Salmond’s SNP government reeled against the political ropes from where it will struggle to recover.
In the deluge of print I noticed the reaction of Kara Weipz, whose brother Rick Monetti had died at Lockerbie. ‘I cannot understand how the Scots can show compassion’ she told the Times. ‘It is an utter insult and utterly disgusting.’ Ten years ago I had sat with Karen’s parents Bob and Eileen Monetti watching a film of the fuselage of a wide-bodied jet being blown apart in a blizzard of fragments. The film had been shot by the Federal Aviation Administration at an airfield in Alabama.
‘What the FAA did was put the same size of explosive in the same place in the cargo hold as the bomb which blew up Pan Am 103 at Lockerbie,’ Bob Monetti told us at the time. ‘Now imagine that happening at six hundred miles an hour and at 30,000 feet. It would have been all over in a second. Rick and the rest of the folks on that plane would never have known what happened. That’s what we tell ourselves anyway.’ It was the bleakest of consolations, but it was one of the ways that the Monetti family grappled with their grief.
I’ve no doubt Kenny MacAskill – who I happen to know slightly – was genuinely touched by Megrahi’s wretched and terminal condition. But if he’d learned more about the measures some families took to cope with their losses perhaps his ‘compassion’ for Megrahi might have ebbed. Pamela Dix, whose brother was killed, showed us photographs of the indentation his body had made after falling 30,000 feet into the fields of Tundergarth Farm. For years afterwards she lectured to the police academy at Hendon on ways of handling bereaved families after catastrophes like Lockerbie.
Geri Buser – who lost her husband, her son and her pregnant daughter – found consolation in regular trips to Lockerbie where, she said ‘I feel closer to the three of them in Lockerbie than I ever do in New Jersey.’ Whenever she visited Lockerbie she’d make contact with her friend Ella Ramsden whose little council house was wrecked by debris and falling bodies. Georgia Nucci lost her twenty-year-old son Christopher a year after her daughter Jennifer had died in Ecuador. Nucci’s reaction was to fly down to an orphanage in Bogota, Colombia and adopt no fewer than four children (aged four, six, seven and eleven). ‘I just wanted a family,’ Nucci told us. ‘I had to have a family.’
Peter and Suse Lowenstein are a wealthy couple from Morristown, New Jersey. He owns and runs a plastics company and she is a talented artist and sculptor. After their son Alexander, aged twenty, died at Lockerbie they consulted medical experts to find out whether the boy would have been unconscious all the way down to earth. ‘They told us he would certainly have blacked out at the higher altitudes,’ Peter Lowenstein told us, ‘but that he may have regained consciousness as he fell into oxygen-rich air. I hope he didn’t.’
Suse Lowenstein’s response was to create life-size sculptures of naked, grief-stricken women, modelled by the wives, mothers, sisters and sweethearts of the people who died. One of them is an image of herself. They are frozen in the positions they struck when they heard the name Lockerbie. The sculptures sit in a circle in the garden of the Lowenstein’s big timber-built house in Montauk, Long Island. To date Suse has created seventy-six figures. She calls the project ‘Dark Elegy’ and says ‘This is my life’s work now.’
And twenty-one years have clearly done nothing to assuage the hurt and anger of Susan Cohen whose only child Theodora was killed on Pan Am 103. Susan and her husband Dan were relentless in the pursuit of Theodora’s killers. In the 1990s the Cohens became well known faces in the US media, filled with contempt for the US and British bureaucrats who, they declared, were doing too little. But ten years ago Dan Cohen had this to say: ‘One of the great myths about all of this is that tragedy makes you a better person. Oh no, it doesn’t. I’m not a better person than I used to be. I’m an angry and bitter person.’ And one who would have been quite happy to lob a few missiles into the heart of Libya. ‘I don’t believe in justice any more,’ he says. ‘I have no problem with the word revenge. I have no problem with at all, not any more.’
At the other end of the emotional spectrum, as it were, are the figures of Dr. Jim Swire and the Reverend John Mosey, neither of whom believe that Megrahi was the bomber or that Libya was involved. Both men lost daughters. Flora Swire (who was a twenty-three-year-old medical student) is buried on the Isle of Skye. Helga Mosey (who was working as a nanny in the USA) lies in the kirkyard at Tundergarth, near Lockerbie. She is one of only three Lockerbie victims buried there.
Jim Swire’s campaign to uncover the truth about Lockerbie is well known. It has cost him dear. Ten years ago he was claiming that the loss of his practice salary and his NHS pension rights had cost him around £1 million. ‘But I think there would have been a heavier price had I had to sit on my hands and do nothing. I think I would have exploded in some way, or come to grief terribly if I’d tried to do that.’
John Mosey, an ordained minister of the Pentecostal church says that the bombing shook but did not destroy his faith. Of God, he says, ‘He didn’t cause it, of course, but He could have stopped it and He didn’t. And He knows the reason why, and we accept that. We don’t like what happened, we certainly don’t understand why it has happened, because we prayed for our girl before she went for a safe journey. But we do trust God and we say Father, you know best.’
With the money that flowed into John Mosey’s church following the death of Helga the Moseys created the Helga Mosey Childrens’ Home in Luzon in the Philippines. The home takes in babies and very young children who have been abandoned. The Moseys take comfort from the fact that there are children now alive who would have died if Helga Mosey had not been killed. ‘Her loss is not like an illness you can recover from,’ John Mosey told us ten years ago. ‘It’s an amputation that you learn to live with.’
Judging by the media reports the anger that the American families feel for MacAskill and the Scottish government is palpable. But most of them, I suspect, will retain their affection for the town of Lockerbie itself. The people we talked to had been deeply moved by the way in which the women of Lockerbie gathered up the victims’ torn and blood-stained clothes from all over the area, carefully washed and ironed them, wrapped them in tissue paper, folded them into boxes and returned them to their families, wherever that was possible.
‘We were told by our own State Department that we couldn’t have the clothes back,’ recalled Aphrodite Tsairis, whose daughter Alexia (nineteen) was one of the bomber’s victims. ‘They said that the things were too soiled, too badly damaged. But the people of Lockerbie just did it. I cannot tell you how much that meant to us.’ It was a simple gesture which had an extraordinary effect.
A year or two after working on the television programme I went back to Connecticut to talk to Jane Davis. In the archives of Syracuse University I’d come across a collection of gaudy postcards which Shannon had sent back to the USA from various parts of Europe. Jane had donated them to the university. They sparkled with playful energy, affection and that strange argot peculiar to teenagers. It seemed to me that they deserved a wider public.
After I’d recorded my radio interview with Jane, and after a friendly dinner during which she’d cracked funny in her broad Texas accent, she asked me if I’d like to see Shannon’s grave. It was dark by the time we got to the small-town graveyard, but in the car’s headlights I could see a simple headstone under which the remains of Shannon Davis lay.
I remembered that headstone as I watched Abdul Baset Ali al-Megrahi being welcomed by cheering crowds in Tripoli and then, a few days later, listened to Kenny MacAskill defending himself in the blonde-wood interior of the Scottish Parliament. And I couldn’t help thinking that MacAskill, and perhaps the SNP itself, was about to learn that the road to political oblivion – like the road to hell – is lined with good intentions.
Cover photograph © Amanda Slater