Freeing the Lockerbie Bomber: Cultural Constraints on the Construction of Motives

Clarke Rountree, University of Alabama in Huntsville
Simone McGrath, Independent Scholar


Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al-Megrahi, who was convicted as the notorious Lockerbie Bomber, was freed by Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill on humanitarian grounds. The justification MacAskill provided in a speech on the release was widely criticized as cover for alternative motives. This essay uses MacAskill's speech as a case study of a failed construction of motives to reveal cultural constraints on the construction of motives. It illustrates the function of what Clarke Rountree has called "specific dimensions" of pentadic relationships (as opposed to "general dimensions") and how that shapes constructions of motives.

On December 21, 1988 Pan Am flight 103 was making its way from London to New York City when it exploded over the small town of Lockerbie, Scotland, just twenty miles north of the English border. Eleven people on the ground died as huge chunks of the jet rained down, along with the bodies of 243 passengers, including 189 Americans and 16 crew members. The cause of the explosion was a bomb that punched a hole in the fuselage and caused the plane to quickly disintegrate.

British authorities worked with the US Federal Bureau of Investigation for three years before identifying two Libyan suspects. Ten more years passed before one of the suspects, Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al-Megrahi, was tried and convicted in a special Scottish court. That court had been set up in a neutral country, The Netherlands, by agreement with Libya. The court sentenced Megrahi to serve twenty-seven years in a Scottish prison. But, a few years into his sentence, Megrahi developed terminal prostate cancer. He appealed for release and Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill announced on August 20, 2009 that Megrahi would be freed on compassionate grounds (K. MacAskill). Two hours later, the Libyan emerged from prison and flew to Tripoli where he was greeted by an enthusiastic throng of supporters. On May 20, 2012 he finally succumbed to the disease that had given him a three-month life expectancy (“Lockerbie Bomber”).

American officials, US and British media, and a skeptical public in both countries discounted MacAskill’s explanation for the release. Rumors of secret oil deals, of a botched original investigation of the case, and of outright corruption on the part of government prosecutors cast a cloud over MacAskill’s noble explanation of the decision to release Megrahi. In this sense, MacAskill’s construction of his motives and those of his government in the release failed. This essay examines that failure in order to better understand MacAskill’s discourse, the audiences of this discourse, and cultural constraints on constructions of motives.

Constructing Motives

In A Grammar of Motives, Kenneth Burke explains how people construct motives. He explores the question: “What is involved, when we say what people are doing and why they are doing it?” He explains that constructions of motives answer several questions: What was done? Who did it? When and where was it done? How was it done? Why was it done? These questions reflect the terms of Burke’s dramatistic pentad, respectively: act, agent, scene, agency, and purpose (Grammar xv). Sometimes, Burke suggests, we can add a sixth term, attitude, to answer “In what manner?” the act was done (Grammar 443).

The rhetorical construction of motives takes advantage of the various characterizations one may make of these five or six pentadic/​hexadic terms (i.e., answers to the questions they present), as well as the relationships among them, which shapes an overall understanding of motives. Thus, as David Ling showed in his classic pentadic analysis of Senator Edward Kennedy’s construction of his actions following the accident at Chappaqquiddick, the junior senator from Massachusetts described a dominating scene, featuring a narrow, unlit bridge; cold, rushing water; and his exhaustion from fighting these elements in trying to save his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne. Kennedy constructs that scenic explanation to account for his lengthy delay in reporting the accident that killed Ms. Kopechne (Ling).

Constructions of motives can become quite complex, as the first author has demonstrated in his own work, when such constructions involve multiple acts placed in strategic relationships with one another (Rountree, Judging the Supreme Court and “Instantiating ‘The Law’”). For example, MacAskill’s compassionate release decision is intimately tied to medical judgments about Megrahi’s life expectancy; therefore, constructing the act of diagnosis as objective and accurate was key to MacAskill’s justification for the compassionate release of this “terminal” prisoner.

This analysis demonstrates the complex constructions of MacAskill’s motives by MacAskill himself, as well as by political leaders and the news media. Ultimately, this essay explains why MacAskill’s speech releasing Megrahi was a failure at constructing appropriate motives for release, partly because of his own vacillations in that construction, and partly because the news media and its audiences are cynical about government and the claims of its officials.

Freeing the Lockerbie Bomber

MacAskill’s announcement of the release of the Lockerbie bomber on compassionate grounds is a grammatically complex discourse. First, it involves the construction of more than a dozen distinct acts including the bombing, the prosecution and conviction of Megrahi, legal appeals, actions by the UK and US governments, their officials, and citizens; and numerous actions by MacAskill in deliberating and reaching a final decision in this case. As the first author has noted elsewhere, such multipentadic constructions are often found in judicial opinions which grapple with the facts of a case, enacted law (constitutions, statutes, and regulations), and precedent decisions, as well as the judges’ own acts of decision, which they typically explain (Rountree, Judging the Supreme Court). But, of course, such constructions are found in other discourses as well (Rountree, “When Actions Collide”), as the MacAskill statement illustrates.

MacAskill’s construction of actions also is complex because of the strategic ways in which acts are related to one another. Typically, one set of acts reinforces another set of acts, as when he enumerates various meetings he had with interested parties in deliberating over this decision. Other times, his constructions set acts on a collision course, such as when his recounting of this heinous act of terrorism is directly contrasted with his decision to offer compassion to this convicted terrorist.

The complexity of MacAskill’s discourse required him to interweave multiple acts into a web of inter-pentadic connections to support the decision he reached. At the same time, that complexity provided multiple points of attack, as those who criticized the decision could tinker with this or that pentadic set in an effort to bring down the whole web of “grammatical” support. We will examine each of these various pentadic sets constructed by MacAskill, beginning with the oldest acts involving the bombing, investigation, and prosecution, before turning to MacAskill’s actions in deciding to grant a release to the Lockerbie bomber.

The Guilty Act

In the second paragraph of MacAskill’s speech, he describes the events of December 21, 1988, when “a heinous crime was perpetrated . . . [that] claimed the lives of 270 innocent civilians.” The act was heinous because those “innocent civilians” were “cruelly murdered.” The evil and cruelty of the act was enhanced by the scene within which the murders took place — “four days before Christmas” — and the innocence of the victims, who were “going about their daily lives.” This evil act was undertaken by an evil agent (or agents) with an evil attitude. But MacAskill does not name the evil agent in this initial construction. The effect is to suggest a mysterious villain, like Harry Potter’s “Lord Voldemort,” whose name is not to be spoken lest one invoke an evil spirit or somehow humanize one that should be demonized. Of course this choice of words could simply reflect the fact that the identities of all those involved in the bombing were never discovered, though MacAskill never raises that concern. A view of the entire speech, however, demonstrates that this is a pattern in MacAskill’s speech that creates a sense of “mixed motives” or unresolved constructions of actions. Whether this is strategic or rhetorically clumsy we will consider in the conclusion.

MacAskill next characterizes Megrahi as “[t]he man convicted of those offences in the Scottish courts.” This construction portrays Megrahi as a passive agent (one “convicted”) instead of an active perpetrator of this crime. Yet at the end of the speech, MacAskill makes the Libyan active, charging that “Mr. Al-Megrahi did not show his victims any comfort or compassion.” The passive construction seems to open the door for questioning Megrahi’s guilt, while the closing construction presumes guilt and paints Megrahi with a cruel attitude towards those he victimized.

MacAskill’s stress on the act of conviction moves the action from the bombing to the trial, and may imply that others found guilt where the Scottish minister had not. Rumors of a faulty or corrupt conviction were circulating, but MacAskill rejects them. Turning to the acts of investigation, prosecution, and conviction, he bolsters the agents involved in those acts, asserting:

Let me be quite clear on matters on which I am certain. The Scottish police and prosecution service undertook a detailed and comprehensive investigation with the assistance of the US and other authorities. I pay tribute to them for the exceptional manner in which they operated in dealing with both the aftermath of the atrocity and the complexity of a world-wide investigation. They are to be commended for their tenacity and skill. When Mr Al-Megrahi was brought to justice, it was before a Scottish court sitting in the Netherlands. And I pay tribute to our Judges who presided and acted justly.

Here, the acts of the investigators and prosecutors were thorough, despite the complexity of case. Their “exceptional manner” and “tenacity and skill” reflected the commendable means they employed and attitudes they evinced in the process. The “just” actions of the judges were the result of their evenhanded and fair attitudes and the appropriate means they employed in the act of presiding and reaching a conclusion. Yet, he limits his endorsement of legal process to “matters on which I am certain,” implying that there are other matters on which he is not certain.

After praising authorities, MacAskill returns to a construction that lets others say that Megrahi was guilty: “Mr. Al-Megrahi was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of 270 people. He was given a life sentence and a punishment part of 27 years was fixed. When such an appalling crime is perpetrated it is appropriate that a severe sentence be imposed.” Megrahi again is a passive agent here (“was sentenced”; “was given”). Instead of saying he deserved that sentence, MacAskill describes a justified sentence under generalized conditions, namely, “[w]hen such an appalling crime is committed. . . . [emphasis added]” (see a discussion of generalized actions in Rountree, “Coming to Terms”). He could have said: “Because Al-Megrahi committed such an appalling act, he deserved this punishment.” Instead, he again refused to say himself that Megrahi is guilty. He leaves his audience with a sense of mixed motives.

Perhaps MacAskill’s refusal to stress more emphatically his belief that Megrahi is guilty in the bombing of Pan Am 103 is because of his position as Cabinet Minister for Justice. His position is not equivalent to that of US Attorney General in the United States. He is not involved in prosecutions on behalf of the state; the Lord Advocate handles those. Instead, he oversees criminal law, the police, public safety, liquor licensing, witness protection, and other duties, notably, the prison system (“The Scottish Government”). His role makes the maintenance of an objective stance in such matters of justice more important, as he holds the prosecutorial and judicial departments of the government at arm’s length, taking their determinations as starting points without having to commit himself personally (as, say, a US Attorney General would be committed in US prosecutions). MacAskill would become more personally invested in the next set of acts, where he was confronted with deciding whether the man found guilty in the terrorist bombing deserved to be released from Greenock Prison.

MacAskill Constructs Himself: The Prisoner Transfer Agreement Decision

In discussing his own decision in this case, MacAskill begins by building a wall between two potentially connected acts. He notes that

Al-Megrahi has . . . withdrawn his appeal against both conviction and sentence. As I have said consistently throughout, that is a matter for him and the courts. That was his decision. My decisions are predicated on the fact that he was properly investigated, a lawful conviction passed, and a life sentence imposed.

Again, we have the emphasis on what was done to the passive Megrahi on his road to prison, with an emphasis on propriety, if not clearly on justice. But added is an active Megrahi who makes decisions about his appeals. MacAskill’s emphatic separation of his own deliberations in the request for release and Megrahi’s decisions is notable. “He protesteth too much,” one might conclude, in suggesting that there was no coordination or consideration between Megrahi’s actions and those of the Scottish minister. On the other hand, building a wall between himself and the investigators, prosecutors, and courts in this case is consistent with his refusal (in most places) to say explicitly whether or not he believes Megrahi is guilty, since that is not really his proper concern as minister over the prisons. MacAskill’s earlier tip of the cap to his counterparts in this case skirts the issue of whether the outcome was correct by focusing on the agents, their agencies, and their attitudes. Thus, he provides some support for setting aside concerns over corruption or incompetence in the prosecution of Megrahi, while standing apart in a way that narrowly circumscribes his role as agent to one working in a limited scene (certainly not in that place “between [Megrahi] and the courts”) for limited purposes (deciding on a release request).

MacAskill draws one more distinction between his own act of deciding on the release and the issue of the bombing and how it should be dealt with. Here he does not simply invoke a division of labor between himself and the investigators, prosecutors, and courts, but he makes the issue bigger than himself and even the people involved in bringing the bomber to justice, noting:

This is a global issue, and international in its nature. The questions to be asked and answered [in the Lockerbie bombing] are beyond the jurisdiction of Scots law and the restricted remit of the Scottish Government. If a further inquiry were felt to be appropriate then it should be initiated by those with the required power and authority. The Scottish Government would be happy to fully co-operate in such an inquiry.

This odd statement places any ultimate decision in the Lockerbie bombing case above the pay grade of the Scottish minister charged with making a decision over the release of the only person convicted in the bombing. Although MacAskill will shortly turn to “matters before me that I require to address,” he distinguishes out this larger “issue” that he refuses to elaborate upon. Again, this seems to point to questions unanswered which “further inquiry” would be needed to address, feeding speculation that there are skeletons in the closet of this case. In any event, by MacAskill’s reckoning, this unnamed issue appears to overshadow the smaller question before the Scottish minister. This may serve as a preparation for the disappointing news he is about to deliver, though it does so at the costs of throwing off responsibility to unnamed others and of providing fodder for conspiracy theories.

In distinguishing what he is doing from what the investigators, prosecutors, and courts have done and what unnamed global agents might do, MacAskill limits his own field of action. He need not concern himself with the correctness of the outcome of Megrahi’s case (only the process), nor with larger issues of international justice. Within this confined space (or as Burke would say, a narrowed circumference [Grammar 77–85]), MacAskill embodies the open-minded, thorough, thoughtful decision-maker. He also assigns blame, for the first time, to others whose actions directly touch on his decision-making process.

MacAskill had two questions before him: whether Megrahi should be released to the Libyan government under a Prisoner Transfer Agreement (PTA) and whether he should be granted a release on compassionate grounds in light of his terminal illness. He notes that the Libyan government applied for a transfer of Megrahi on May 5, 2008. The negotiating agent was not the Scottish government, however, but “the United Kingdom Government.” That government signed a PTA with Libya despite “the Scottish Government’s opposition.” Scottish authorities wanted UK negotiators to exclude anyone involved in the Lockerbie bombing from the provisions of the PTA with Libya, especially since Megrahi was the only Libyan in the Scottish prison system. That exclusion “the UK government failed to secure,” making Megrahi eligible for transfer.

In weighing the decision whether to transfer Megrahi, MacAskill “recognized that a decision on transfer would be of personal significance to those whose lives have been affected . . . [therefore, he] decided to meet with groups and individuals with a relevant interest.” Here MacAskill uses descriptions of each of those acts of reaching out for input to demonstrate his attitude of concern and interest, and the thoroughness of his deliberations. He reports that he spoke to families of victims, to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to US Attorney General Eric Holder, to Libyan Minister Alobidi and his delegation, and even to Megrahi himself.

He evinces compassion by noting his concern for the victims’ families, for whom the subject “is still a source of great pain,” and specifically mentions a meeting with “a lady from Spain whose sister was a member of the cabin crew.” He met with Lockerbie families “whose kinfolk were murdered in their homes,” as well as videoconferencing with US families. In meeting with Libyan officials, he sought “their reasons for applying for transfer” and conveyed “the objections that had been raised to their application.” He met with Megrahi because of a promise made by UK Secretary of State for Justice Jack Straw, who negotiated the PTA and assured Libya that if the prisoner did not submit the PTA himself, he “must be given the opportunity to make representations.” Because of those promises, MacAskill insists, he “was duty bound to receive [Megrahi’s] representations.” MacAskill notes that American officials and victims’ families objected to the transfer because they were assured, before the trial, about the venue for the incarceration of anyone found responsible for the terrorist bombing, an assurance that gave them “comfort . . . over the past ten years.”

When MacAskill reached out to the UK government for feedback, “[t]hey declined to [make representations on the case].” Nevertheless, MacAskill did hear from them that there was no legal barrier to the transfer and that they had made no promises to the Americans on the case. Beyond that, MacAskill reports, “[t]hey have declined to offer a full explanation as to what was discussed [with the Americans] during this time, or to provide any information to substantiate their view,” which the Scottish minister found “highly regrettable.”

The silence of the British was the clincher for MacAskill in his own interpretation of motives in this case, where he concluded:

I therefore do not know what the exact nature of those discussions was, nor what may have been agreed between Governments. However, I am certain of the clear understanding of the American families and the American Government.

Therefore it appears to me that the American families and Government either had an expectation, or were led to believe, that there would be no prisoner transfer and the sentence would be served in Scotland.

Based upon those understandings, MacAskill rejected the request for a transfer of Megrahi under the PTA.

MacAskill’s decision-making here embodies the man who believes one’s word is one’s bond. He is not narrowly legalistic — the fact that a written prisoner transfer agreement allows the transfer is insufficient. Oral promises to the Americans, whose details were recounted for MacAskill in his meetings with families and officials, created a duty to keep them. Going back on one’s word would be a travesty here. And, obviously, MacAskill is dubious about the UK government’s account, given their lack of forthrightness.

MacAskill constructs himself as a paragon of virtue, especially through the contrast with the UK government, which negotiated an agreement for one person, pushed MacAskill to ignore entreaties from the Americans, and stonewalled when he asked for details. The UK government comes across as manipulative and their motives are thrown into question. Little wonder that conspiracy theories about secret deals quickly followed MacAskill’s speech.

MacAskill Constructs Himself: The Compassionate Release Decision

MacAskill next turns to his deliberations over the compassionate release request. In this narrative he is hemmed in by constructions of two different groups of acts: legal and medical. The former provides his means and the latter his ends in granting the request.

First, MacAskill establishes that he has the authority under Scottish law to grant a compassionate release. He notes that “[s]ection three of the Prisoners and Criminal Proceedings (Scotland) Act 1993 gives the Scottish Ministers the power to release prisoners on licence on compassionate grounds.” The requirements for such grants of release are somewhat general, he reports:

The Act requires that Ministers are satisfied that there are compassionate grounds justifying the release of a person serving a sentence of imprisonment. Although the Act does not specify what the grounds for compassionate release are, guidance from the Scottish Prison Service, who assess applications, suggests that it may be considered where a prisoner is suffering from a terminal illness and death is likely to occur soon. There are no fixed time limits but life expectancy of less than three months may be considered an appropriate period. The guidance makes it clear that all prisoners, irrespective of sentence length, are eligible to be considered for compassionate release. That guidance dates from 2005.

Three acts are concisely spliced together in this account of the law which guides MacAskill: the 1993 Act of Parliament, the 2005 act of “guidance” from the Scottish Prison Service, and the generalized act of compassionate release which the parliamentary act and its later clarification describe. Laws always deal with generalized acts inasmuch as they are developed to apply to future situations involving unknown particulars. In this case, the convicted agent eligible for release might include one with a terminal illness nearing its conclusion and that agent may have any number of days or years remaining on his or her sentence. MacAskill efficiently highlights elements of the statute in question so that they potentially fit Megrahi like a glove. It was left for him to establish that, indeed, Megrahi had but a short time to live.

Relying on medical authorities, MacAskill shows that these expert agents have concluded that Megrahi is dying. He develops a timeline that establishes the progression of Megrahi’s illness and his deterioration. He notes that the Libyan “was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer in September 2008.” Following the application for compassionate release, MacAskill notes, “I have been regularly updated as to the progression of his illness.” He references “numerous comprehensive medical reports” from “consultants who have been treating him,” “medical experts,” “the doctors and prison social work staff,” “a range of specialists,” “other specialists and consultants,” and “Scottish Prison Service doctors who have dealt with [Megrahi] prior to, during and following the diagnosis of prostate cancer . . . [and have seen him] during each of these stages. . . .” Their conclusions, MacAskill notes, are that “[i]t is quite clear . . . that he has a terminal illness, and indeed that there has recently been a significant deterioration in his health,” “that his clinical condition has declined significantly.” After undergoing “several different trials of treatment,” the doctors determined that Megrahi’s illness was “’hormone resistant’ — that is resistant to any treatment options of known effectiveness.” His prognosis, therefore, “has moved to the lower end of expectations” to the point that recently “the Director of Health and Care for the Scottish Prison Service indicates that a 3 month prognosis is now a reasonable estimate.”

This construction of a throng of doctors engaged in a series of ongoing tests and treatments over a year’s time conveys a sense of certainty about Megrahi’s prognosis. Expert agents using multiple agencies seeking to diagnose and treat Megrahi implies that MacAskill is working with the best assessment possible. Nevertheless, MacAskill admits that Megrahi “may die sooner [than three months] — he may live longer.” Delegating the medical assessment to medical experts, as he delegated the prosecution and conviction of Megrahi to the legal experts, he insisted: “I can only base my decision on the medical advice I have before me.”

MacAskill draws on one last set of experts to reject an alternative plan for compassionate release, noting:

It has been suggested that Mr Al-Megrahi could be released from prison to reside elsewhere in Scotland. Clear advice from senior police officers is that the security implications of such a move would be severe. I have therefore ruled that out as an option.

MacAskill’s constructions of the acts of others has fairly hemmed in the decision he must make, limiting the reach of what now could constitute reasonable action on his part. The web of grammatical constraints was first fixed with his description of the statute’s requirements, which deserves closer scrutiny of its language at this point: “The Act requires that Ministers are satisfied that there are compassionate grounds justifying the release of a person serving a sentence of imprisonment” (emphasis added). The term grounds is commonly thought of as an agency of argument, whereby one argues a proposition and provides support, or the grounds, for it. However, there is a scenic quality to grounds reflecting its foundational connotations, an image of drawing from or sinking into something substantial, unmovable, earthly. MacAskill’s phrase highlights this scenic element, because in his formulation, either “there are” or “there are not” compassionate grounds. That is, those grounds exist or they do not exist. There is no middle ground, no continuum here, as were we to say, alternatively, “I must give weight to compassionate considerations,” where more or less weight may tip the balance this way or that.

Finding compassionate grounds in this formulation involves going out and looking to see if they exist. That scenic approach comports well with the medical experts to whom MacAskill looks for guidance. Doctors are scientists, looking at bodies, studying the effect of treatments, assessing the growth of cancers, and the like. As Burke has noted, such materialist orientations are scenic (Grammar 128, 131). The doctors’ scenic ground and MacAskill’s compassionate grounds are dovetailed in the Scottish minister’s construction. If death is imminent — a medical/​scientific question — then the requisite compassionate grounds exist. Indeed, MacAskill as decision-maker is moved out of the picture to the extent that compassionate grounds themselves justify the decision to release. Stated grammatically, the scene (grounds/​medical condition) controls the act of choosing to release Megrahi.

Around this scene-act construction are additional terministic moorings that fix the act of release to follow. The scenic requirements are a product of the legal agency that sets compassionate grounds as a standard. “Compassion,” an attitude and purpose, is a direct outgrowth of those scenic grounds. That is, a medical condition, a state of affairs, a unique scene, gives rise to a purpose of offering compassion, and an attitude of pity and sympathetic feeling towards Megrahi and his family. Oddly, agents, who are required elements as vessels of attitudes and purposes, are only implied here. Of course, technically it is the state that is offering compassion here, though MacAskill provides the face of the state. Overall then, the legal agency describes the required scenic grounds, the medical experts establish those scenic grounds, the scene gives birth to a purpose and attitude of compassion, all of which determine MacAskill’s act.

By the time MacAskill announces that Megrahi had “met the criteria [for release],” the die has been cast. Nonetheless, MacAskill reasserts his role as agent of the decision, insisting that “it therefore falls to me to decide whether Mr Al-Megrahi should be released on compassionate grounds.” MacAskill’s embrace of his responsibility in this case, where he reminds us, “a decision has to be made,” belies the fetters he has placed upon his own actions. He does not indicate where in this statute-driven decision he has wiggle room to decide that Megrahi will not be released; he makes no mention of his discretion in this matter. Yet he constructs himself as the final arbiter of this emotionally-charged decision, who is willing to face the disagreement he foresees, “whatever my decision.”

At this point of final consideration, after positioning himself squarely in the seat of what George W. Bush famously called “the decider,” MacAskill turns to reconstruct the actions of others, rather than of himself. One construction invokes the acts, judgments, and values of the Scottish people as a whole; the other constructs an act of God. On the latter, MacAskill assures his audience that ultimate justice has been meted out, regardless of his actions, because “Mr. Al-Megrahi now faces a sentence imposed by a higher power. It is one that no court, in any jurisdiction, in any land, could revoke or overrule. It is terminal, final and irrevocable. He is going to die.” Megrahi’s disease, previously part of the scenic-medical-scientific landscape is here transformed into an agency of divine action for the purpose of ultimate justice. Constructing the Libyan as one already sentenced and irrevocably serving out that sentence diminishes concern over the human-imposed sentence in Greenock as well as the release to come.

The other group of acts constructed by MacAskill at this juncture involves the Scottish people as a whole. He assures his listeners:

Scotland will forever remember the crime that has been perpetrated against our people and those from many other lands. The pain and suffering will remain forever. Some hurt can never heal. Some scars can never fade. Those who have been bereaved cannot be expected to forget, let alone forgive. Their pain runs deep and the wounds remain.

Note MacAskill’s specific focus on the Scottish nation’s memory, which is the storehouse for the victimage and pain of its people, as well as “those from many other lands.” He highlights the public memory of this particular group of agents because it is on their behalf that he will show compassion to Megrahi. Because they remember and they still suffer for all those victimized, the Scottish people are in a position to grant compassion because (1) they were harmed and, thus, are a proper party to offer a reprieve and (2) they understand suffering and, ironically, are thus positioned to identify with the suffering of the dying Libyan and his family.

Of course just because a group of victims could show compassion to their victimizer does not mean they will. But MacAskill explains how the character of the Scottish people makes such a compassionate act appropriate: “In Scotland, we are a people who pride ourselves on our humanity. It is viewed as a defining characteristic of Scotland and the Scottish people.” Those defined by their humanity are those who engage in compassionate acts, he avers, through an agent-act logic. It is the Scottish nation that is defined by its humanity, the Scottish people, and, as a Scot himself, MacAskill. Thus, the Justice Minister readies his audience to see his compassionate release of Megrahi as following from the nature of Scots. It also implies the reverse: that engaging in a compassionate release demonstrates the Scottish humanity he touts (through an act-agent logic), while failing to do so detracts from this noble construction.

Scottish humanity is directly contrasted with the inhumanity of “Mr Al-Megrahi [who] did not show his victims any comfort or compassion. They were not allowed to return to the bosom of their families to see out their lives, let alone their dying days. No compassion was shown by him to them.” Here MacAskill must deal with a collision course between two actions: Megrahi’s bombing and the Scottish nation’s compassion.

Grammatically, the two acts are incompatible. On the one hand, there is Megrahi, an evil agent undertaking a horrendous and deadly act with a heartless, cruel attitude towards the hundreds of innocents who perished. Megrahi then becomes the focus of a second act, supported by MacAskill, whereby victimized agents nonetheless maintain their compassionate attitudes to engage in an act of pardon for the very person who made them victims. MacAskill recognizes the leap required here, but insists: “The perpetration of an atrocity and outrage cannot and should not be a basis for losing sight of who we are, the values we seek to uphold, and the faith and beliefs by which we seek to live.”

Kenneth Burke told a story explaining what he called the “nevertheless” strategy in the construction of motives. He said:

A conference organizer is standing to introduce a keynote speaker, Walter Jones. He announces: “Now we will hear from Walter Jones.” An audience member jumps up and yells, “Walter Jones is a liar, a fraud, and a windbag.” The introducer responds: “Nevertheless, Walter Jones will speak now.” (Burke, Personal Interview)

Burke’s “nevertheless” principle highlights the fact that grammatical relationships are not deterministic of actions, but only terministic. That is, despite grammatical relationships among the pentadic terms, a particular understanding of a grammatical term is not deterministic of action “in the world,” though it is terministic in shaping our understanding of motives. So, for example, the conference organizer in the example above may let a “liar, fraud, and windbag” speak at his conference, but not without the consequence of others questioning the motives of the organizers (i.e., reassessing “what they are doing and why they are doing it”).

Of course, showing compassion to one who has not shown you compassion is not universally rejected. The grammatical incongruity involved in MacAskill’s appeal to the “nevertheless” strategy here does not reflect a lack of concern for what the first author has called a general dimension of terministic relations, such as the scene-act relationship, whereby a scene is thought to contain an act. Rather, it involves what is a culturally-coded specific dimension that says that compassion should not be shown to those who engage in evil acts (Rountree, “Coming to Terms”). That specific dimension might be thought to be otherwise, given the Christian heritage of the UK and US, whose citizens are key audiences of this discourse. But, there are other cultural factors at work in determining “what properly goes with what” in the construction of motives.

Christian teachings concerning “turning the other cheek” and letting “he who has not sinned cast the first stone” might smooth the grammatical discord in MacAskill’s construction. However, a prevalence of Christian belief in a society has not always tempered the urge to trade “an eye for an eye” in the justice system. Consider the United States after 9/​11. One of the most Christian nations in history, widely regarded for its defense of human rights, quickly devolved to the point where former Vice President Dick Cheney could admit, on national television, that officials in the Bush administration ordered the waterboarding of three terrorist suspects. Waterboarding, an interrogation method that uses simulated drowning to coerce information from suspects, was first used during the Spanish Inquisition and was prosecuted as a form of torture in the United States as early as 1947 (Pincus; Mostrous). But, given the devastation of the terrorist attacks, with thousands dead and a nation in shock, the nation was quick to ignore human rights in the interests of security and revenge. Even as late as 2014, a CNN poll found that while most Americans believed waterboarding is torture, 49% approved of its use (Jaffe). Those results should come as no surprise, even without the 9/​11 attacks, given “tough on crime” positions of both Republicans and Democrats over the past 30 years and fictional media heroes from “Dirty Harry” to 24’s Jack Bauer suggesting that playing tough with criminals is both necessary and useful. The Weekly Standard notes that over 12,000 prisoners died (mostly of natural causes) in US prisons from 2001–2004 — compassionate release has not been our practice (Lindberg).

Although the British are not as supportive of such extreme measures against the worst criminals (see, e.g., Miller and Kull), they do have a “tough on crime” legacy of their own. For example, a decade ago, Prime Minister Tony Blair was trying to “woo middle class voters” with a series of bills that were “tough on crime.” The appeal was needed, despite the fact that crime rates had fallen, because fear of crime had risen (see, e.g., “Blair Gets Tough”). Such changes in attitudes circumscribe both what ministers can safely do in offering compassion to criminals such as Megrahi as well as how their motives will be constructed. In the case of MacAskill’s speech, he was on shaky ground when he followed his appeal to Scottish humanity with the proclamation: “it is my decision that Mr Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al-Megrahi, convicted in 2001 for the Lockerbie bombing, now terminally ill with prostate cancer, be released on compassionate grounds and allowed to return to Libya to die.”

Overall, MacAskill constructs his motives for releasing Megrahi as law-following, grounded in medical/​scientific evidence, compassionate, and comporting with the humanity of the Scottish people. He initially constructs Megrahi as a passive recipient of a conviction for a heinous crime, but ends by emphasizing his lack of compassion. Because MacAskill uses careful language in referencing the findings of the prosecutors and courts, he leaves the impression that he either does not agree with their assessments, or that it is simply beyond the scope of his duties (or perhaps conflicting with them) for him to take a position on the matter. He does not question the professionalism of those involved in the case, even if he does not directly endorse the verdict. He shows sympathy to victims, but berates British officials for failing to fully cooperate. He takes pains to state that he had no influence on Megrahi dropping an appeal, perhaps sensitive to appearances, but he does not discuss the concerns he is trying to alleviate. He demonstrates even-handedness in rejecting the Prisoner Transfer Request, while accepting the Compassionate Release request. The act of release itself, it would seem, satisfied the British in their efforts to secure a release, though his rejection of their means (PTA) seems to create a separation from them.

Next we turn to the construction of MacAskill’s motives by others. Generally, the explanation that the Scottish minister offers of compassionate grounds as the only basis for Megrahi’s release was rejected by commentators. We will argue that public incredulity over his construction of motives as offering compassion to a heartless agent who committed violent atrocities is central to a search for alternative explanations. The “mixed motives” he presented in failing to clearly blame Megrahi for the bombing also opened the door to alternative explanations.

Government Officials Respond

The reaction from government officials on both sides of the Atlantic was swift and overwhelmingly negative. Because 189 of the dead from the Lockerbie bombing were Americans, it is unsurprising that the news of Megrahi’s release was met with criticism from this side of the pond. Surprisingly, the criticism from the Obama administration was terse and measured. President Obama called Megrahi’s release “a mistake” and noted that his administration was “holding further discussions on the matter” (Cowell and Sulzberger). White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs was more formal, but still brief in reporting: “The United States deeply regrets the decision. . . . [W]e continue to believe Megahi should serve out his sentence in Scotland” (Siddique, Milmo, and Carrell ). Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had previously “expressed strongly” to MacAskill that the Libyan should not be released (Samuelson). FBI Director Robert S. Mueller, III, who had been the lead investigator in the Lockerbie bombing case, was the most vocal of all. He called MacAskill’s decision “as inexplicable as it is detrimental to the cause of justice” (Burns and Lipton). He admitted, “I have made it a practice not to comment on the actions of other prosecutors . . . ,” but ignored that practice in telling MacAskill, “ . . . I am outraged at your decision, blithely defended on the grounds of ‘compassion’” (Boyle). Overall, such comments did little more than to construct MacAskill’s act as wrong. Mueller’s comments implied a too-casual attitude on MacAskill’s part in “blithely” granting the pardon.

Greater outrage was expressed by US officials not from the release itself so much as the Libyan reaction to it. US Attorney General Eric Holder warned MacAskill two months prior to the decision that “the convicted Lockerbie bomber could not get a hero’s welcome if he were returned home to Libya” because such a return “would be seen as a vindication of al-Megrahi’s innocence . . .” (Macleod). And, indeed, that’s what happened. Cheering mobs greeted Megrahi. Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi was shown hugging the freed prisoner. The entire scene was broadcast across the world. Robert Gibbs called the scenes in Tripoli “outrageous” and “disgusting,” noting that President Obama condemned the cheering Libyans’ behavior (Burns). New York Senator Chuck Schumer said “the Libyan government has shocked the world with its gross and callous behavior . . . ; the celebration compounded the crime” (Boyle).

This construction actually detracts attention from MacAskill by bringing in new agents — the Libyans, who lack a sense of propriety in celebrating the release of a mass murderer. From the perspective of Libyans, that celebration might have been warranted either because Megrahi was a hero in taking on Westerners in this bold and successful terrorist attack or, more likely, because they thought he was the victim of a frame-up by Western governments who wanted a scapegoat for the attack (see, e.g., Burns and Lipton). This latter perspective would be taken up by some Western commentators in their construction of MacAskill’s motives.

Government officials in the UK with the exception of Prime Minister Gordon Brown, expressed greater outrage at the decision than American officials. British Conservative leader David Cameron said Megrahi’s release was “wrong and the product of some completely nonsensical thinking” (Siddique, Milmo, and Carrell). After he became Prime Minister in 2010, Cameron told American officials during his first visit to Washington DC that Megrahi’s release “was completely and utterly wrong . . . totally fraudulent, morally offensive and, quite possibly, criminal” (“Drill for the Truth”).

Scottish officials were no happier about the decision of their Minister of Justice. The leader of the Scottish Conservative party, Annabel Goldie, proclaimed: “I want to make clear that the decision to release Mr. Megrahi was not done in the name of Scotland” (Underhill). At an emergency session of the Scottish Parliament called by MacAskill in 2009, to which Members of Scottish Parliament were recalled from their summer break, the opposition party claimed MacAskill “had not been speaking for Scotland . . . and the Justice Secretary had brought shame to Scotland” (Maddox). Labour justice spokesman Richard Baker accused MacAskill of having “made up his mind to release Megrahi and then tried to marshal evidence and paperwork to justify it” (Barnes). MacAskill retorted by attacking the UK Government, declaring that they “declined to make representations or provide information” on the case, had “shunned his request for advice on the matter, and withheld information he sought about any understandings with the United States regarding Mr. Megrahi’s imprisonment” (King). MacAskill found support from Alex Salmond in condemning the Prisoner Transfer Agreement brokered by Tony Blair as “ethically wrong” (Carrell).

Missing in this early round of condemnations was Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who was silent on the issue. Leaders from the left and right of Brown criticized this silence. Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, said that “it was absurd and damaging [for Brown to keep quiet regarding the decision] in the vain hope that someone else will take the flak” (King). Conservative Party politician Liam Fox offered: “When the going gets tough, Gordon Brown disappears” (Kennedy and Croghan). The Guardian summarized numerous critics in suggesting that it was “absurd for Brown to continue to say nothing” five days after the release (Carrell). Secretary of State Jack Straw defended Brown’s silence, claiming that “it would be wrong for a UK minister to offer an opinion on a decision taken in Scotland” (Watt and Carrell). However, he was less generous to MacAskill, noting that unlike the Scottish minister, he had never “visited a prisoner in jail who has applied for compassionate release,” since a written representation would be sufficient (Watt).

Other UK officials took their wrath over the controversy out on the Americans. Lord Fraser the Lockerbie prosecutor, former Lord Advocate, and old friend to FBI Director Mueller throughout the years of the Lockerbie case, responded to Mueller’s criticism of the release. He was “absolutely shocked” at comments from Mueller, because they created a spectacle of “an unelected US police official publicly rebuking a Scottish minister.” He thought the “[t]he intervention of the director of the FBI was totally out of order. . . . It would be the equivalent of the Metropolitan police chief writing to Barack Obama to complain about a decision.” Henry McLeish, former first minister, suggested that Mueller “keep his nose out of Scotland’s affairs” (King).

These US and UK criticisms from officials generally failed to construct MacAskill’s compassionate release in any detailed way beyond saying that it was problematic or unjustified. It led to little speculation as to MacAskill’s “true” motives in the release, though the media were quick to fill the void. Indeed, the in-fighting among parties and between officials on either side of the Atlantic mostly drew attention away from MacAskill’s act and towards the subsequent acts (or omissions of actions) by various officials. However, the heat from the controversy demonstrated in these exchanges would fuel speculation that MacAskill acted with something less than humanitarian motives in his release of Megrahi.

The news media constructed two primary alternative motives for MacAskill, both involving a hidden government conspiracy, as well as several minor constructions. The most popular claimed that the release was part of a secret oil deal the British were trying to finalize with Libya. Or, more generally, this construction emphasized the British interest in good relations with Libya, for economic and other reasons. A second popular construction had MacAskill recognizing that Megrahi’s conviction had been bungled, making the release a means to avoid embarrassing revelations about the investigation and the conviction, particularly if Megrahi appealed the case. We will examine these two major constructions that compete with MacAskill’s own self-construction.

Blood Money

The most frequently cited motive for the release of Megrahi is that the Libyan was a bargaining chip in British efforts to open up Libya to lucrative business deals. It was widely reported that the British sought such deals (particularly for British Petroleum) and that the release of Megrahi was a prerequisite for the Libyans to move forward with those deals.

The construction of British action relating to Megrahi’s release in support of a business deal begins with their efforts to push a prisoner transfer agreement (PTA) that opened the door for Megrahi’s release. As The Guardian reported: “The UK government had ‘failed to exclude’ Scotland from the prisoner transfer agreement despite the fact that the only Libyan in Scottish custody was Megrahi, said MacAskill” (Siddique). That act of omission was taken to reveal a purpose of opening the door to Megrahi’s release. The Daily Telegraph constructed this PTA as a betrayal, because it went “back on a pledge made to the SNP [Scottish National Party] government to keep Megrahi out of a prison transfer agreement with Libya.” The scene within which they did this revealed a larger purpose, the British newspaper added, because the UK ministers “switched their position as Libya used its deal with BP as a bargaining chip” (Barnes). Indeed, BP admitted to pushing for the PTA. The New York Daily News reported: “BP says it pressed for a transfer agreement in general, not specifically relating to Megrahi” (“Drill for the Truth”). The newspaper quoted a Libyan source noting that “[i]t was obvious that we were talking about him [i.e., Megrahi]” (“Drill for the Truth”). The Press Association of Scotland stressed the timing of the PTA announcement:

The Tony Blair agreement [i.e., the PTA] was signed during the then Prime Minister’s global farewell tour. It also coincided with an announcement by oil giant BP that it was returning to Libya after 30 years in an oil and gas exploration deal. (Quinn)

Not only did Tony Blair indicate an interest in freeing Megrahi, his successor did as well. As The Sun reported, “sensational documents [released] showed that [Prime Minister Gordon Brown] did NOT want the mass murderer to die in jail.” Indeed, the newspaper noted, “[t]he PM and Foreign Secretary David Miliband both told the Libyan government they were against Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi perishing from cancer in Greenock Prison” (Nicoll). Thus, the purpose of freeing Megrahi was shown not to be merely an interest of the retiring Tony Blair, but of other top British officials as well, making this a conspiracy of leaders and not merely of parties.

BP was the primary corporate beneficiary of “lucrative oil contracts from the Qaddafi government,” according to the New York Times (Cowell and Sulzberger). News sources named a number of British officials, besides the former and current prime ministers, who lobbied on behalf of the British oil giant. The Economist noted that “three British ministers have visited Libya in the past 15 months (as has Prince Andrew, Britain’s special representative for trade and investment)” (“Counting the Cost”). The New York Times added that “the Duke of York [i.e., Prince Andrew] . . . has made a reputation for promoting British business interests in parts of the world where Britain has played down its human rights agenda as it has sought oil deals and other lucrative contracts” (Burns). The Economist added others to the list as well, such as “Lord Mandelson, the powerful business secretary, [who] had twice this year met Mr. Qaddafi’s son. . . .” The story quoted the British aristocrat as telling Megrahi on his return to Libya: “[I]n all the trade, oil and gas deals which I have supervised, you were there on the table” (“Counting the Cost). The Weekly Standard added another aristocratic voice, “Lord Trefgarne, the head of the Libyan British Business Council, lamenting the slow pace of oil deals, [who] charmingly noted [following Megrahi’s release], ‘Perhaps now, with the final resolution of the Lockerbie affair, as far as the Libyans are concerned, maybe they’ll move a bit more swiftly’” (Lindberg). That swifter movement involved “multibillion-dollar oil contracts,” according to the New York Times, “set[ting] the terms for the ‘deal in the desert’ that sketched a reconciliation between Colonel Qaddafi’s pariah government and the West” (Burns).

The Economist widened the economic interests at stake beyond those involving oil in noting that “[r]etailers such as Marks & Spencer, one of the 150 British firms present in Libya, hope to expand there, and defence and construction contracts beckon” (“Counting the Cost”). The image is one of a convergence of multiple business interests all wanting to smooth over relations with Libya by freeing Megrahi.

The British were not simply motivated by a general interest in establishing the possibility of business deals and by lobbying from BP. The New York Times noted an enticement from Libya, which “awarded Britain a major oil contract, a $900 million deal involving BP, and dangled the prospect of others” (Burns and Lipton). If an economic purpose was plain, so was the means for reaching those ends. Many news sources reported that Qaddafi’s son had made Megrahi part of the negotiations over British trade deals. Both the New York Times and the New York Daily News quoted the Libyan leader’s son, Saif al-Islam insisting that “in all commercial contracts for oil and gas with Britain, Megrahi was always on the negotiating table” (Kennedy and Croghan). The Washington Times used stronger language, urging that “[e]ven before the terrorist landed in Tripoli to the hosannas of the mob, the colonel’s sons were boasting of the deal their daddy made; Daddy himself said the trade would be ‘positively reflected in all areas of co-operation between the two countries’” (Pruden). The Sun emphasized that the trade talks would have been undermined without the release, reporting:

A month earlier the Libyans warned Foreign Office minister Bill Rammell of “catastrophic effects” for relations with Britain if Megrahi died in prison. The note says: “Mr Alobidi confirmed that he had reiterated to Mr Rammell that the death of Mr Megrahi in a Scottish prison would have catastrophic effects for the relationship between Libya and the UK.” (Nicoll)

Overall, the construction urged that securing the PTA and realizing Megrahi’s release were not ends in themselves; instead, those purposes were transformed into agencies of a larger economic purpose sought by the British. Connecting those purposes-qua-agencies into ultimate economic purposes redounded on public interpretations of what Scottish Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill was doing in releasing the Libyan. The implication is that MacAskill became an agent of British economic interests.

This construction was plausible enough that it led to some harsh words from American politicians. For example, Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman said that the suggestions of an oil deal were “shocking.” New York Senator Chuck Schumer asked: “Was there a quid pro quo here?” He added: “I don’t know if that’s the truth, but if it is: shame, shame, shame on the British government” (Burns).

The problem with these constructions of an economic motive, obviously, has to do with a missing grammatical link: Why would MacAskill, the Scottish Justice Minister, give a whit about British economic interests? These constructions ignore that little problem, identifying MacAskill with British prime ministers, aristocrats, royalty, and British Petroleum. They presume, without establishing, a connection, with rare exceptions. One New York Times article suggested a connection between MacAskill and the oil deal through the leader of his Scottish National Party, Alex Salmond: “[C]ritics in Scotland suggested that Mr. Salmond, a former oil economist for a Scottish bank, might have seen long-term benefits for Scotland beyond its reputation for compassion” (Burns). The implication is that if MacAskill’s party leader saw benefits for Scotland (rather than simply benefits for the British), then that Scottish economic purpose might have been shared (or foisted upon) MacAskill. But this purpose is tenuous (“might have seen long-term benefits”) and unexplored — we learn nothing of how Scotland might benefit. That mechanism is a black box, as political machinations often are conceived.

The Daily Record in Scotland tried another avenue of oil influence, noting that MacAskill “’took into account’ pleas for Megrahi’s release from the government of Qatar, where the Scottish government have been keen to build trade links” (Gardham). Thus, we have a completely different business deal being raised as crucial, while the huge majority of the news coverage spoke only of British interests. The same article took one more stab, this time through a familial connection, noting that Kenny MacAskill’s brother Allan “worked for oil giants BP — who have signed a major exploration deal with Libya. Allan also worked for Canada-based Talisman Energy, another oil firm who have sought business in Libya” (Gardham). The article admits that Allan MacAskill’s work with BP ended in 1997, but nonetheless seeks to assert Allan’s interests and connect them to his barrister brother.

We will return to the issue of grammatical disconnection in the construction of “oil motives” at the end when considering the competition among accounts of MacAskill’s motives. For now it suffices to note that there was no compelling construction of the release of Megrahi that clearly connected the Scottish minister to British economic interests. Indeed, the sound and fury committed to detailing the economic interests — particularly of the powerful BP and its government defenders — is motivationally rich, but strategically weak in implicating MacAskill as the primary agent of action. He would have to be a pawn, but no one bothered to show convincingly that someone was directing him.

Corruption or Incompetence in the Prosecution and Conviction of Megrahi

A second, though less widely discussed, alternative motive the news media offered for the release of Megrahi paints a picture of a botched or corrupt prosecution and conviction of the Libyan. Doubts concerning the conviction were fueled first by the media’s highlighting of Megrahi’s protestations of his innocence, in spite of his conviction, Libya’s payments to the victims of this convicted Lockerbie bomber’s terrorism, and Megrahi’s dropping of an appeal of his conviction prior to his compassionate release. The New York Daily News noted, “Al-Megrahi has always insisted he is innocent . . .” (Boyle and Kennedy). In four separate articles, the New York Times conveyed Megrahi’s position: “Mr. Megrahi has always maintained his innocence” (Lyall), “Mr. Megrahi insisted one more time on his innocence” (Cowell and Sulzberger), “Mr. Megrahi, meanwhile, at home with his family in Tripoli, continued to insist on his innocence” (Burns), and “ . . . Mr. Megrahi and his supporters have always depicted [his conviction] as a gross miscarriage of justice” (Burns and Lipton). The New York Daily News added Megrahi’s lament: “The remaining days of my life are being lived under the shadow of the wrongness of my conviction” (Boyle and Kennedy). One New York Times story offered this plea from the Libyan: “And I say in the clearest possible terms, which I hope every person in every land will hear: all of this I have had to endure for something that I did not do” (Cowell and Sulzberger). Megrahi’s claim of innocence added a note of sympathy for those he was alleged to have harmed: “To those victims’ relatives who can bear to hear me say this: they continue to have my sincere sympathy for the unimaginable loss that they have suffered” (Cowell and Sulzberger). Obviously, Megrahi’s attitude of sympathy was at odds with MacAskill’s construction of the Libyan as failing to “show his victims any comfort or compassion [in the bombing].” Megrahi also indicated that, despite his release, he would take steps to prove his innocence. John F. Burns of the New York Times reported that “Megrahi told The Times of London on Friday that he would ‘put out evidence’ exonerating himself and that the people of Britain and Scotland would ’be the jury’” (Burns).

Beyond such obviously self-serving statements, other people indicated that Megrahi’s conviction might have been tainted. As Sarah Lyall reported for the New York Times, “many Scots — including influential members of the legal establishment — feel that Mr. Megrahi was unjustly convicted and should never have been imprisoned in the first place.” She quoted Hans Köchler, a United Nations observer assigned to oversee the original trial in the Netherlands, who “called the guilty verdict ‘inconsistent’ and ‘arbitrary’” (Lyall). The Christian Science Monitor noted that the father of one of the Lockerbie bombing victims, Jim Swire, “long had doubts about Megrahi’s involvement and has pushed for an independent inquiry to examine the events surrounding the night of the bombing.” He stated that he was “determined to get at the truth” (Samuelson).The New York Daily News reported that many British relatives of the bombing’s victims “believe that Iran was the real culprit,” and “speculat[ed] that al-Megrahi’s release was engineered to distract from evidence he had been railroaded” (Boyle and Kennedy).

Megrahi’s decision to drop his appeal, which MacAskill had insisted “was his decision,” also fueled speculation of a government conspiracy to frame Megrahi. David Blair of The Daily Telegraph asked: “[W]hy did the Libyan suddenly drop his appeal last Friday? Why did his lawyers then go to court and win judicial approval for this decision on Tuesday?” (Blair). This action was odd because, Blair notes, “[i]f . . . illness was the only factor in Mr MacAskill’s mind, these moves would have been unnecessary. . . . Once back in his homeland, Megrahi could have sought to clear his name by persisting with his appeal” (Blair). Angus Macleod of The Times (of London) quoted a former British ambassador to Tripoli stating that there was “something fishy” in this coincidence of the dropped appeal and the compassionate release and inferring that “some kind of deal” had been made (Macleod). Carrell and Watt of The Guardian also emphasized the timing, noting that “[o]n 14 August, two days after it emerged that the Libyans had been secretly told that Megrahi would be released, Megrahi suddenly said he would drop his appeal” (Caroll and Watt). John Pilger of the left-of-center British magazine, The New Statesmen, was more explicit in drawing conclusions from this coincidence, asserting that the Libyan was “in effect blackmailed” to drop the appeal, before he could bring “some 600 pages of new and deliberately suppressed evidence [that] would have set the seal on his innocence and given us more than a glimpse of how and why he was stitched up for the benefit of ‘strategic interests’” (Pilger). The reporter even connected those interests to the Scottish government (rather than simply to the British, as the blood-for-oil theories had done) in giving voice to the ambassador’s belief “that there was growing anxiety in the Scottish justice department that a successful appeal would severely damage the reputation of the Scottish justice system” (Pilger, qtg. Oliver Miles). Pilger highlights this purpose even as he rejects the blood-for-oil claims, citing a BBC source insisting: “I don’t think there was a deal involving business. I think on that ministers are telling the truth” (Pilger). Such qualification by the left-wing writer — that they were lying about this, but not about that — gave him a sense of evenhandedness.

Although there were hints of problems in the prosecution and conviction of Megrahi, few mainstream media sources offered any elaboration of those problems. Doing so would not have been hard. For years, Professor Hans Köchler had been decrying the original conviction. Köchler had been nominated by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, with four other people, to observe the original trial. A first-hand report of his concerns over the trial was published in 2001 (Köchler, “Report on”). Köchler also weighed in on an appeal of the case and issued several statements to the international press expressing concern over the correctness of the verdict (Köchler, “Report on,” “Scots Complicit,” “I Saw the Trial”; “UN Monitor”; Macaskill). Köchler’s lone voice was joined more recently by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission, which had enough doubts about the conviction to approve his case for appeal.

Despite these concerns, only left-of-center, small-circulation periodicals bothered to detail the unjust conviction/​government conspiracy construction of the case. Pilger of the New Statesman, was a rare source in quoting the Commission’s finding: “based upon our lengthy investigations, the new evidence we have found and other evidence which was not before the trial court, that the applicant may have suffered a miscarriage of justice” (qtg. Commission Chairman Graham Forbes). Two years earlier, on June 28, 2007, the more mainstream Sunday Times of London had quoted the Commission’s concerns over a possible “miscarriage of justice,” though it did not revisit those concerns when it offered a 2009 construction of Megrahi; rather, it editorialized that MacAskill’s decision to release Megrahi was “the wrong decision” (“Return Flight”). Instead of considering the possibility that the verdict was wrong, it castigated MacAskill for the way he discussed Megrahi’s guilt in his speech of compassionate release, complaining that the Scottish Justice Minister seemed to “intend at least to leave a whisper of suspicion about the safety of al-Megrahi’s conviction [from appeal]” (“Return Flight”).

Pilger recounted problems with the case that were well-known in 2009. Two of those problems involved questionable witnesses. The bomb was alleged to have exploded in a suitcase that contained suits purchased from a Maltese shopowner. Although the shopowner testified against Megrahi as the purchaser of the clothes, Pilger notes, he “gave a false description of him in 19 separate statements and even failed to recognize him in the courtroom.” A “secret key witness” testified that he saw Megrahi and his co-conspirator, al-Alim Khalifa Fahimah, load the bomb on a plane in Frankfurt. But Fahimah was acquitted of the charges, while Megrahi was convicted. Furthermore, the secret witness “was bribed by the US authorities holding him as a ‘protected witness’ [whom] [t]he defence exposed . . . as a CIA informer who stood to collect, on the Libyans’ conviction, up to $4m as a reward” (Pilger). There also were problems with material evidence. A key piece of evidence was a circuit board that was used for the bomb’s timer. But, Pilger notes that “[a] forensic scientist found no trace of an explosion on it,” making it likely that the board “was probably a plant.”

Pilger’s construction paints a picture of likely corruption, forcing him to construct another act: that of the international court. For if the evidence was flimsy and the witnesses unbelievable, then why would Megrahi have been found guilty? Pilger has to construct them as corrupt agents as well, offering:

Megrahi was convicted by three Scottish judges sitting in a courtroom in “neutral” Holland. There was no jury. One of the few reporters to sit through the long and often farcical proceedings was the late Paul Foot, whose landmark investigation in Private Eye exposed it as a cacophony of blunders, deceptions and lies: a whitewash. The Scottish judges, while admitting a “mass of conflicting evidence” and rejecting the fantasies of the CIA informer, found Megrahi guilty on hearsay and unproven circumstance. Their 90-page “opinion,” wrote Foot, “is a remarkable document that claims an honoured place in the history of British miscarriages of justice.” (Pilger)

Here Pilger relies on his own witness, Foot, and an insinuation that the jury-less courtroom was run poorly and corruptly by “Scottish” judges who were not “neutral.” His strongest support is the quotation of the opinion that admits a “mass of conflicting evidence” faced the judges who nonetheless found Megrahi guilty, while freeing his alleged accomplice.

Still missing is a purpose for framing the Libyan. Drawing again on Foot, Pilger offers one:

[Foot] named Margaret Thatcher the “architect” of the cover-up after revealing that she killed the independent inquiry her transport secretary Cecil Parkinson had promised the Lockerbie families; and in a phone call to President George Bush Sr on 11 January 1990, she agreed to “low-key” the disaster after their intelligence services had reported “beyond doubt” that the Lockerbie bomb had been placed by a Palestinian group, contracted by Tehran, as a reprisal for the shooting down of an Iranian airliner by a US warship in Iranian territorial waters. Among the 290 dead were 66 children. In 1990, the ship’s captain was awarded the Legion of Merit by Bush Sr “for exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding service as commanding officer.”

Pilger’s account only goes so far as to purpose, suggesting pressure from 10 Downing Street was the result of a promise to a US president. He does not connect the dots, however. What was Bush’s purpose in protecting Iran? The US had fallen out with Iran since the hostage crisis after the fall of the Shah in 1979. The US had backed Iraq in its eight-year war with Iran. And it would be seven months before Iraq invaded Kuwait and turned its former ally into an enemy in the Persian Gulf Conflict. And why would even an ally as strong as Margaret Thatcher take the political heat and support a miscarriage of justice simply as a favor to a US president in a case involving such a heated public issue?

Although the scene-act ratio concerning the timing of the dropped appeal by Megrahi is compelling, establishing the government’s purpose for pushing Megrahi to drop the appeal is more difficult. The problem is the same one faced by those who see a conspiracy involving the assassination of John F. Kennedy or the attacks of 9/​11 (as US government sanctioned) — too many agents have to be implicated in the conspiracy. In the Megrahi case, not only would Scottish, British, and American investigators and officials have had to participate in a cover-up, but Scottish judges and as well. Such thoroughgoing corruption is difficult to sustain in constructions of motives in the absence of insider leaks or smoking-gun documents, except among the most paranoid of audiences.


One might conclude that MacAskill did a poor job of explaining his motives in the release of Megrahi, given the widely-reported conspiracy theories about the release. On the other hand, perhaps the American and British publics that read about the release and its motives themselves were already skeptical, in general, of the government, government officials, and official explanations. In grammatical terms, they had trouble buying connections between the elements of the act of compassionate release, finding more conspiratorial constructions more convincing.

As we noted above, the first author previously drew a distinction between two dimensions of terministic relationships among pentadic terms that is relevant here. He contrasted general dimensions with specific dimensions of those relationships. Of the former, he argued: “General dimensions are described and amply illustrated by Burke in his Grammar of Motives: The scene ‘contains’ the act; means (agencies) are adapted to ends (purposes); agents are the ‘authors’ of their actions; and so forth” (Rountree, “Coming to Terms”). In a recent essay he went further in claiming that such general dimensions are universal, noting that it is “a social and historical fact that humans have made, and continue to make, distinctions that allow them to answer Who, What, When, Where, How, and Why [concerning actions]; and, indeed, that this perspective plays a central role in allowing us to become what is recognizably human (for better or worse). . . .” Accepting that, he urged, puts us “on the road to accepting the universality of the grammar of motives” (Rountree, “Revisiting the Controversy”).

Specific dimensions of terministic relationships get at differences in various discourse communities’ understanding of motives. Thus, while all human societies distinguish various acts, agents, agencies, purposes, scenes, and attitudes, and all human societies understand that scenes are containers of acts, that means must be adapted to ends, that certain agents tend to engage in certain kinds of actions, and so forth, they may differ in their understanding of, say, what kind of agent engages in a particular type of act.

Thus, one reason why MacAskill’s “compassionate release” explanation was so widely rejected rests upon the specific dimensions of our twenty-first century grammar of motives. Obviously, the “tough-on-crime” attitudes embodied in American and British policies and political discourses have sunk into the public psyche and into our cultural grammars of motives, making it unthinkable that one who has been convicted of killing so many — particularly through means employed by terrorists — should be given compassion. Or, put more simply, we tend to believe that government agents responsible for dealing with criminals don’t do this sort of thing. Furthermore, we, as a people, don’t show mercy to our enemies. We aren’t the kind of agents who engage in this kind of act. Certainly many Americans call themselves Christians, but many seem more comfortable thinking of themselves as Christian soldiers (as in the classic 19th century English hymn, Onward, Christian Soldiers), fighting more than forgiving enemies they see as evil.

Perhaps MacAskill is correct in insisting that Scots are different on this score. Given their long history of persecution by the British, perhaps their cultural grammar of motives includes a recognition of the value of compassion and the propriety of their leaders showing it. But the judgment of whether MacAskill’s decision was based upon compassion is never made in a vacuum. It is not compassion or not compassion; instead it is compassion or something else. Because we recognize (1) that people may lie, mislead, or slant their positions and (2) that alternative motives always exist for any given action, the compassion that was offered as central must stand against other possibilities. We don’t always take people at their word. That is why competing constructions become so important in our understanding of motives. Nonetheless, the fundamental strength of one’s claim, in a given cultural context, that “I released this prisoner on compassionate grounds,” will determine how it plays in that competition with other motives.

Admittedly, MacAskill’s speech opened the door to competing constructions, somewhat undermining his own construction of motives. As this analysis has demonstrated, his failure to clearly convey his belief in Megrahi’s guilt — even if it was the ethical product of his arm’s length stance as Justice Minister — led commentators to consider the possibility that the original conviction was flawed, notwithstanding his endorsement of the prosecutors’ professionalism and of the court’s authority. MacAskill’s complaints about British pressure and lack of forthrightness regarding the prisoner transfer agreement made audiences wonder about British motives. The British Petroleum interests at stake provided an easy fit for explaining the attitude coming from Scotland’s “big brother.” And, of course, Megrahi’s refusal to die in a timely manner following his release provided fodder for ongoing speculation about MacAskill’s honesty in explaining how the fatal medical verdict was reached.

These alternative explanations raised the specter of a government conspiracy — either to cover up a botched investigation or to curry favor with Libya for economic reasons. An audience’s willingness to embrace such conspiracy theories also depends upon a particular cultural grammar of motives, one that says: “My government/​another’s government (agent) is likely to engage in an elaborate public deception (act) for ulterior motives (purpose).” Sadly, such assumptions are widespread in the United States, as evidenced by the persistent belief by many that Lee Harvey Oswald was framed for killing John F. Kennedy (Saad) or, more recently, that the government allowed or was behind the attacks of 9–11 (e.g., Mikkelson). Watergate, the Iran-Contra affair, the undiscovered “weapons of mass destruction” that were used to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and other evidences of government conspiracies have fed our belief that this agent cannot be trusted, lending credence to alternative explanations for MacAskill’s release of Megrahi. And, though the British do not have a history of conspiracy theories against their government, they do tend to be as sensitive to economic double-dealing as any advanced capitalist country.

The force of such cultural grammars of motives can overshadow critical thought about motives. As we demonstrated above, no clear connection was made between British economic interests (exemplified in the BP deal) and the Scottish minister whose country and party would not directly benefit by serving this interest. Although MacAskill might be protecting the Scottish justice system from an embarrassing overruling of its prosecution, the blame that was laid by conspiracy theorists seemed to fall on the Americans (particularly the CIA) and not the Scots, and the breadth of the conspiracy had to be so broad as to strain credulity.

If MacAskill’s rhetorical goal was to ensure acceptance of his “compassionate grounds” explanation of his decision, then he failed, partly because of poor rhetorical choices, especially in showing less certainty about Megrahi’s guilt and complaining about the British influence. On the other hand, if his goal included other purposes, such as spurring government investigators and/​or those who watch the investigators to dig more deeply into the Lockerbie tragedy, perhaps he was savvy, but faced a rhetorical situation where he had to sacrifice some of his standing to support these goals (on this “status-actus” relationship see Rountree, “The President as God”). There is no critical method that finally can determine what his actual goals were, so these two assessments must stand together as our judgment on MacAskill.

As communication scholars from Ernest Wrage to Michael Calvin McGee have pointed out, rhetorical criticism can reveal the values of a society at a given point in time, whether they involve the leading ideas of the day or the ideographs central to a polity’s value system. As Wrage explained: “Ideas attain history in process, which includes transmission. The reach of an idea, its viability within a setting of time and place, and its modifications are expressed in a vast quantity of documentary sources [including] . . . lectures, sermons, and speeches” (Wrage 452). McGee looked to discourse to reveal prevailing ideographs deployed by rhetors, which are links between rhetoric and ideology that describe and explain the dominant ideology of a people.

In a similar vein, examining public discourse such as in the Lockerbie bomber release case can tell us something about a public’s understanding of what are to count as credible motives and what are to be rejected. That is, it can reveal the specific dimensions of a culture’s grammar of motives at a particular place and time.

Rhetorical scholars deploying the pentad to study constructions of motives should add to their critical goals a concern for revealing the cultural grammars of motives at play in rhetorical exchanges. They must go to places where rhetoric confronts an audience, consider that audience’s weighing of various constructions (such as we do in our canvassing of the news media), and offer insight into “what goes with what” in a culture’s understanding of motives. That will help us contribute to Wrage’s goal of discovering “[t]he reach of an idea, its viability within a setting of time and place . . .” (452), and better understand ourselves, as we unpack rhetorical artifacts.

Methodologically, this essay demonstrates that pentadic analyses may be enriched by venturing beyond the singular pentad which has been the focus of most pentadic criticism, to consider how rhetors strategically construct various acts and then weave them together to reinforce particular constructions or, as in this case, to leave us with a sense of mixed motives. Multipentadic analyses also may benefit from considering competing constructions of the same acts, to better understand the contested ground and the culture that gives rise to them.

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