I’ve often commented on the sense that I was drawn or pulled into a larger story. I found myself intertwined in the narrative surrounding Pan Am 103 on the evening of the bombing in 1988. It hit too close to home, literally and figuratively, for me to ignore.
By the same token, I’m also aware of my being an outsider, as I’d never known a victim of the bombing. This sometimes creates a sense of self-consciousness on my part as I try to walk a fine line between commemorating Karen Hunt and other victims and respecting the privacy and sanctity of the relatives and close friends of those lost on December 21, 1988.
Part of the balancing act involves an aversion to graphic descriptions, politics, and conspiracy theories. The bombing of Pan Am 103, the investigation, and the eventual release of the bomber were all inevitably products of larger geopolitical struggles. The relatives engaged in a long and remarkably successful series of political campaigns in the years after the bombing. I’ve used portions of this site to discuss some of these struggles, both to depict the aftermath of the bombing accurately, and as a homage to the strength and tenacity of the those robbed of their loved ones in 1988.
Today, I received the news that director Jim Sheridan plans to release a film asserting that Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the only person convicted of the bombing, was in fact innocent.
The growing popularity of the internet coincided with the September 11th attacks, creating a perfect storm of conspiracy theories. The web continues to provide fertile ground for “truthers,” individuals obsessed with what they perceive to be a reality that often conflicts with an official story or, in most instances, reality itself. In the latter sense, the title frequently becomes unintentionally ironic, a parody of itself.
Conspiracy theories existed long before the internet; likewise, conflicting theories concerning the downing of Pan Am 103 began to surface years before the explosion of supposition following the 9/11 attacks in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington D.C. Some, such as Stephen Emerson and Brian Duffy’s implication of the Popular Front For the Liberation of Palestine, were based on hastily conducted research in the immediate aftermath of the bombing (their book was published 16 months after the bombing). Motivated by the rush to publication rather than by mendacity, such early works, unfortunately, continue to obscure the investigation.
Other theories plummet into the asinine; several “researchers” claimed that mechanical failure brought the plane down—the structural failure of a cargo door and ensuing decompression led to the crash, for instance. The most thick-headed of the bomb-denying lot claimed that the crash involved a controlled flight into terrain (he wrote that eyewitnesses saw the plane flying low and intact moments before the crash), an assertion that conveniently ignores radar returns and the fact that debris was scattered over hundreds of square miles.
Most obnoxious and pernicious of all are those who claim that Pan Am 103 never crashed in the first place. Ensnared in the bizzaro world of false-flag ideology, a small group of especially misguided individuals now apparently believe that the crash site was the product of a covert operation to discredit Libya (truth be told, the adherents to this position don’t really seem to have a coherent theory beyond a pathological distrust of official sources). Though small in numbers and easily discredited, this group’s implication that everyone involved in the investigation is part of the cover-up is particularly hurtful to the victims’ families as it suggests that they too are complicit in the plot.
The most persistent and widespread of the recent theories is centered on the premise that the Iranian government ordered the bombing in retaliation for the downing of Iran Air Flight 655 by the USS Vincennes in 1988, mere months before the bombing of Pan Am 103. Dr Jim Swire, whose daughter Flora was among those killed on Pan Am 103, is one of the main proponents of this theory—and the subject of Sheridan’s movie.
Swire’s involvement, his personal connection to the tragedy, and the turbulent nature of U.S. and Iranian relationships in the late 1980s lend a degree of credence to the latter theory, though a number of key assertions about Iran’s involvement fail to stand up to scrutiny. The divide between many families of British victims, who profess al-Megrahi’s innocence, and the majority of the American relatives, continues to this day. The movie has already opened wounds and sparked acrimony between those who should have been united by tragedy.
It’s reasonable to assume that al-Megrahi was but one of many involved in the bombing. Gaddafi died at the hands of his own countrymen several years ago; no doubt others involved in the plot to down Pan Am 103 were killed in the revolution, but others likely survived and walk free today. The case remains open for good reason. It’s unfortunate that misguided efforts designed to capitalize on the public’s disenchantment with official narratives only serve to wound those who lost loved ones in 1988, and distract us from the unfinished business of pursuing the true conspirators.