Advent, Lockerbie and Bethlehem

pan am 103


30 years ago on the evening of the 21st December I turned on the news to see the developing news story that a plane had crashed on to the small Scottish Border town of Lockerbie, the pictures showed this was a major incident. I was a young constable with Strathclyde Police and I suspected I would receive a phone call to report to the police station and I did. The tiny Dumfries and Galloway Police force that covered Lockerbie were overwhelmed and so we were sent in buses down to the town. Arriving in the small nondescript town that was Lockerbie was like being on the set of a post apocalyptic film with fires burning, houses destroyed and bodies lying around.

After an initial deployment looking for bodies in the town I was summoned with several others to the town hall for “special duties.” I am not sure “special” was really the best description of the duties I had to perform for the next couple of days as I assisted in the post mortems taking place. I had dealt with dead bodies before and at car crashes had been confronted with badly mutilated bodies but nothing short of war could have prepared me for dealing with hundreds of bodies and parts of bodies in indescribable states. Those memories will live with me till I die.

So 30 years on reflecting on Lockerbie is unavoidable for me as the news items appear and I even see other cops I worked with on the tv.  . The late 80s were something of an optimistic time if I can remember that far back, the cold war seemed to be heading towards a conclusion and a new century loomed that seemed to offer new hope that the terrible events of the 20th century could be left behind. That hope for me ended in Lockerbie. There had been terrorism throughout the post war period in one form or another but Lockerbie seemed to be  the herald of a new level of viciousness. Innocent people, heading home for Christmas, deliberately massacred in an horrific act of vindictiveness. 9/11 didn’t surprise me, I had seen the DNA of its evil at Lockerbie.

Lockerbie, I suspect like all really evil events, reveals the best and worse of human nature. What do I remember of those days spent in Lockerbie? I remember incredible human kindness, local people bringing meals for us cops, being in the middle of nowhere on a hillside recovering bits of human remains when two older Salvation Army ladies who must have hiked for several miles appeared with flasks of hot soup. I remember the welcome that was given to relatives of the dead as they began to arrive many being invited to stay with locals. I remember the incredible mixture of dignity and grief those relatives showed. A community came together in the face of tragedy, the worst of human actions motivated the best of human caring.

For what its worth I believe that the Iranian government ordered the destruction of Pan Am 103 in revenge for the shooting down of an Iranian airliner by the US Navy, that it was carried out by a Palestinian terrorist group and facilitated by the Libyan government who also wanted revenge for the US bombing of Libya several years before. I think it signaled a darker turn in terrorism if that is possible. Previously terrorist actions were to designed to affect political change, gain the release of prisoners etc Lockerbie was simply motivated by hatred to kill as many innocent people as possible. I still cant get my mind around the planning meeting that resulted in Lockerbie where someone proposed murdering hundreds of innocent people and others agreed that it was a good idea. There is a persistent theory that human beings are basically becoming better  just as the slave trade did, the concentration camps of Nazi Germany, the Stalinist purges of Soviet Russia and the killing fields of Cambodia did before it Lockerbie holed that idea below the waterline. At the Wannsee conference Europeans planned the massacre of millions in concentration camps, somewhere in the middle east a different race of human  planned the massacre of hundreds on an airliner, the same human evil lay behind both cold calculating decisions.

Strangely perhaps the longest lasting legacy of my experience at Lockerbie has been to confirm me in my Christian worldview. At Lockerbie I was confronted by the depths of human evil and the incredible capacity of humanity for goodness and kindness towards those in need. After leaving the police and studying theology I can better articulate that experience. Humanity, as it is made in the Image of God has a deep desire for the good of others and yet alongside this in the human race, and in each human life to a greater or lesser extent, is the deep flaw we call sin, that can cause people with the capacity for incredible good to instead choose to perpetuate indescribable evil.

I’m sure that it was no accident that this atrocity was carried out in the run up to Christmas. We are used to thinking of Christmas as a time for peace and goodwill but there is usually a missing note in our retelling of the Christmas story that we find in the Bible, the reality of evil. Thousands of years before we had the destruction of so many lives above Lockerbie we had the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem. Evil men, desperate to exert power saw the murder of innocent children as a legitimate means to an end. I am sure I was hearing an echo of the grief of Bethlehem’s mothers in the tears of the relatives of Pan Am 103 in the mortuary at Lockerbie, as the same human evil revealed itself.

Yet I believe that that at that first Christmas God lit through Jesus, God incarnate, the fuse on an explosion of love which will ultimately destroy the power and hold of evil in the human race and the human heart. Among the horrific sights I witnessed in those post postmortems I found a picture of hope that has lived with me more powerfully than all the images of horror.  I prised open a young lady’s hand to find tight in her grip a cross that in all probability had been around her neck. I have no idea what went through that young women’s mind in the few seconds between the explosion and death but I think she instinctively reached out for the cross because she understood that at some level it was the ultimate answer to evil and fear. Confronted by evil and the prospect of death she reached for the cross.  I have always followed her example and held on to the hope of the cross when confronted by evil. I believe it will ultimately be the only effective antidote to the human hatred and evil that erupted in Bethlehem and Lockerbie and all too often raises its head in my heart and mind.

At Lockerbie I was confronted by the reality of human evil, in Bethlehem I am comforted by the reality of God given hope.  I still am. Lockerbie reminds us that the human race is not evolving inevitably into something better, Bethlehem reminds us  with certainty that one day it will be transformed into something better. This Advent, as I do every year, as I remember Lockerbie, I long for the “His will to be done on earth as it is in heaven-” I long  for human evil and violence rather than human lives that be what is finally and fatally destroyed,  by the arrival of God’s Kingdom

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