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An ocean away, release of Pan-Am bomber triggers memories on College Hill

Last year, Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi was diagnosed with terminal cancer — a piece of personal information that catapulted the former Libyan intelligence official to the center of an international controversy.

In late August al-Megrahi, the only man convicted for the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 on December 21, 1988, was released from a Scottish prison on "compassionate grounds" to return to his homeland to die. The decision resurrected the painful tumult of two decades past for the family and friends of the terrorist attack's 270 victims — including the loved ones of Stuart Barclay '82, David Dornstein '85, Mary Lincoln Johnson '85, Andrea Rosenthal '88 and visiting student Julian Benello.

Barbara Tannenbaum, senior lecturer in theatre, speech and dance and Johnson's mentor at Brown, said she cried when she heard the news of al-Megrahi's release.
"It brought it all back," she said.

The flight was midair, traveling from London to New York, when a bomb concealed in a suitcase detonated as a timer expired. The plane exploded above Lockerbie, Scotland — killing all 259 people on board and 11 townspeople as it crashed. The members of the Brown community on board were returning home for the holidays from a range of international locations — London, Asia and Israel.

Though the tragedy took place on the other side of the Atlantic, the fallout was felt on College Hill. The University held a memorial service in Sayles Hall on Feb. 3 — at the beginning of the next semester — for the five young victims.

"Sayles was packed," recalled Senior Associate Chaplain Alan Flam, who led the service. He described the attendees as a "very substantial crowd" of Providence-area alumni, family members and a mixture of Brown faculty, staff and students. The service's other speakers included then-President Vartan Gregorian and five faculty members, one on behalf of each Brown student who died in the crash.

Though few students on campus had known the Brown grads who were killed in the bombing, Flam said the news had a "sobering impact" on the campus community.
Tannenbaum, who delivered Johnson's eulogy at the 1989 memorial service, said she struggled to write a speech that she could deliver to people who had not known her former student. "I wanted the people who didn't know her to get a sense of her," she said.

Tannenbaum practiced the eulogy in front of her course on persuasive communication and asked for her students' feedback, she said. "They certainly saw my grief and the care that I put into finding a way to express the things that were almost impossible to express at the loss of such a young, promising woman."

Pamela Kripke '82 said she found it ironic that the house she shared senior year with the "brilliant and lovely and elegant" Barclay was at the intersection of Hope and Power streets.

The decision to release al-Megrahi was "a grave insult," Kripke said.
"It was certainly maddening and certainly unjust to actually see the word ‘compassionate,'" she said. "As a compassionate human being, I didn't feel that he deserved any compassion."

Even if Kripke had not had a personal connection to the tragedy, she would not have considered eight years in prison "sufficient punishment" for al-Megrahi's crime, she said. The former Libyan intelligence officer was convicted and given a sentence of at least 20 years in 2001 after a court was specially convened in the Netherlands for the trial.

Despite criticism of his decision from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, President Obama and many victims' families, Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Justice Kenny MacAskill defended his decision, telling the BBC in a video interview that he had acted in accordance with due process and the principles of the Scottish justice system.

But Ruth Wedgwood, professor of international law at Johns Hopkins University, said al-Megrahi has the right to medical care in prison, but not to be released early.
Wedgwood, who serves on the United Nations Human Rights Committee, said al-Megrahi's release — like his indictment and conviction — obscures the Libyan government's own involvement in the attack. She wrote in an Aug. 21 Forbes Magazine column that the Libyan government may construe the decision as weakness in the face of the regime's human rights record.

Wedgwood's is one of many voices publicly pointing to oil reserves as a hidden motive in the decision, though British officials have denied such claims.

But as political tensions escalate, the family and friends of the individuals who died in the attack are left in the turmoil of their memories and emotions.

"For those of us who loved (Dornstein), and for those who loved the other 269 souls killed by the plastic explosives that downed Pan Am 103, there's really no punishment of the perpetrators (that) could possibly deliver any sort of true justice. At least not in this world," former Herald editor Norman Atkins '84 wrote in an e-mail to The Herald about the columnist he recruited during their time at Brown.

University employee James Schlageter said the word "Lockerbie" is a powerful reminder of his brother Robbie's death. But he tries to cope with his loss by compartmentalizing his emotions and talking openly about his younger brother, he said.

"In our family, what we try to do is commemorate his life," Schlageter said.
 




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