e've been here before: the destruction of major aircraft, huge loss of life, the long search for justice, and, in the end, a sense of despair about ever punishing those responsible.
At 7:03 P.M. on December 21, 1988, a terrorist bomb destroyed Pan Am flight 103, killing all 259 passengers and crew on board and eleven residents of the Scottish town of Lockerbie where the debris fell. Nearly 14 years later, a Libyan secret agent has been convicted of the crime and is serving a life sentence in Barlinnie prison near Glasgow. But, in the wake of the far larger attacks of September 11, does this really represent a welcome judicial success in the war on terror, a model for the future?
I watched the trial against the Libyan unfolding earlier this year. During the final day of proceedings, when Abdelbaset Ali Mohamed al-Megrahi learned that he had lost his appeal against conviction, I found myself thinking about the ringleader of the September 11 hijackers, Mohammed Atta. Of course he would never face such a court and maybe just as well but what about the men senior to Atta and to al-Megrahi? Would their chains of command, leading upwards towards Osama bin Laden or Colonel Khaddafi, ever be brought to any kind of justice?
The Pan Am case had followed an investigation lasting a decade and involving some noble and brilliant detective work. And the trial, at a unique court sitting under the law of Scotland but on the neutral territory of the Netherlands, had cost tens of millions of dollars, Libya's price for releasing two accused (one of whom was later acquitted). On the old U.S. airbase where the court was set up, dozens of Scottish policemen were drafted in on guard duty. Elaborate arrangements were made for translation into English and Arabic. No expense was spared. But was it worth it?
The conviction of Abdelbaset Ali Mohamed al-Megrahi was highly controversial in itself. Even the panel of three judges admitted that, "in relation to certain aspects of the case there are a number of uncertainties and qualifications."
The problem, as so often in major terrorist cases, was that there was no smoking gun, no single neat piece of testimony or scientific proof. Prosecutors had instead assembled circumstantial evidence and the judges, in their conclusion, acknowledged the "danger" of reading into "a mass of conflicting evidence a pattern or conclusion which is not really justified." Quite. One has to pity the investigating authorities for having gone to such immense lengths only to yield relative scraps; and to wonder whether a future case against bin Laden could be assembled any more effectively.
In the end, the judges accepted the following chain of circumstances: that clothes wrapped around the bomb had been bought at a shop on the island of Malta; that an unaccompanied suitcase somehow made it from Malta to Heathrow; that al-Megrahi was on Malta under a false name at the crucial time; that he was a Libyan secret agent; that he knew a Swiss arms dealer specializing in timing devices; and, most important of all, that he was identified as the purchaser of the clothes.
But if we look into that last point identification it's hard to avoid the impression that the trial judges, and later the appeals court which upheld the conviction, were prepared to resort to desperate means to conclude with a conviction. Were they under pressure?
The shopkeeper who sold the clothes was one Mr. Gauci. On various occasion he was asked to identify al-Megrahi. Yet his record in this was not consistent and he was unsure about the dates. Central to his testimony was that the man who entered his shop to buy the relevant articles also bought an umbrella which he used on leaving because it was raining. Prosecutors suggested that fact pointed to a particular date, December 7, when al-Megrahi was known to have been on Malta. A meteorologist was brought in to discuss the weather that day. There was a chance it had rained then, he said, but only a 10-percent chance. That was enough for the judges.
So, notwithstanding that meager 10-percent chance of rain on December 7, the conviction was secured and later al-Megrahi was imprisoned in Scotland. The prosecuting teams were delighted. The policemen could now fly home to Scotland. One senior officer told me, "at least it's done and dusted."
But, quite obviously, it isn't. Even if al-Megrahi is guilty, surely a middle-ranking Libyan intelligence officer would only act under orders? And those orders, presumably, would have to come from the top, from Khaddafi? Yet we see no desire to pursue this case any higher. By contrast, we see the urgent diplomatic desire for closure. In the same speech earlier this month in which he lined himself squarely beside George Bush on Iraq, Tony Blair talked of extending the "hand of friendship" to Libya, hoping it would come into "full community of international relations." A junior British minister was despatched to Tripoli in August.
And what of the many other theories about who did it? Might the attack not have been ordered by Iran in revenge for the shooting down of an Iranian airbus by the USS Vincennes, and carried out, under Syria's guidance, by Assad's client terrorist group the PFLP-GC? Or might Atef Abu Bakr, once Abu Nidal's right-hand man, have told the truth to an Arabic newspaper recently when he recalled his master boasting that he was behind the attack?
Darkest of all is the theory that the CIA, in some mysterious black operation, was smuggling drugs on PA103, only to have terrorists infiltrate explosives into the bags instead.
Who knows? But that's the point. The arduous and expensive trial did not answer the key questions.
In the meantime, the belongings of the Pan Am victims were returned to the families last month, almost 14 years after the attack: new photographs, from previously undeveloped film, of a dead daughter; clothes for a two-month-old baby; and Christmas presents. Yet this does not represent closure. The largest mass murder on British soil remains unsolved. The September 11 mass murders may too.
David Shukman is a correspondent for BBC News