The world of December 21, 1988

Seventeen years ago today, a Pan Am flight traveling from London’s Heathrow Airport to New York crashed in Lockerbie Scotland.  The New York Times’ “On this Day” feature reprints the front page and original article from the following day’s newspaper. 

The story, by Craig Whitney, is 1,400 words long.  The word “terrorism” is not one of them.

Aviation authorities thought that since the jet disappeared from ground controllers’ radar screens when it was at 31,000 feet, without an emergency call from the cockpit, whatever brought it down must have happened instantaneously.

What Happened to Transponder?

If the power to the electrical system operating the plane’s transponder had not been suddenly cut, the transponder would have kept sending signals about the aircraft’s position and altitude to radar screens on the ground, which would have shown it losing altitude as it fell.

Among the kinds of things that might have suddenly cut power would be a bomb, an explosive decompression caused by a structural weakness, or a decompression caused by a midair collision.

Mr. Kriendler said there was no indication of an explosion and that Pan Am had not received any threats.

He said that 30-mile-an-hour winds were reported at about 4,000 feet when the aircraft took off, but there was no information of how strong the winds were at 31,000 feet, the plane’s cruising altitude before it apparently lost power.

As it turned out, there was an explosion–of about 16 ounces of the plastic explosive Semtex-H hidden in a Samsonite suitcase packed in the forward cargo hold. A large consignment of Semtex had been sold to the Libyan government by a company affiliated with the former Czech communist government.  Semtex is manufactured in Semtin, Czechoslovakia. The bomb was hidden inside a cassette radio wrapped in clothing that had been made and sold in Malta. About two weeks before the bombing, the manager of Mary’s House in Sliema, a clothing store, sold some of the clothing to a man of Libyan appearance. The man didn’t seem to care what he was buying: An old tweed jacket, a baby’s jumpsuit, and other items of different sizes.  

Almost three years after the crash, the strangely indifferent clothing-store customer was formally charged with the murders of the Pan Am passengers and crew. Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi, a Libyan intelligence officer who was head of security for Libyan Arab Airlines (LAA), and Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah, the LAA station manager in Luqa Airport, Malta, were indicted for murder by Scottish authorities.  Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi turned the two suspects over to Scottish police in 1999 after a lengthy negotiation and UN sanctions. Megrahi was convicted in 2001 and is now in a Glasgow prison. Fhimah was acquitted. In exchange for a lifting of UN sanctions, the government of Libya accepted responsibility and paid compensation of $8 million to each of the victims’ families. The sanctions were lifted in 2003.

Assuming that the various alternative theories of the bombing are incorrect and at least one of the right men are in prison, the motive appears to have been to retaliate for the 1986 U.S. bombings of Tripoli and Benghazi, Libya, which were themselves retaliation for a Gaddafi-ordered bombing of a Berlin nightclub frequented by U.S. military personnel, in which three died.

I sense a great nostalgia among many Americans for the pre-9/11 world.  And who can blame us?  The 9/11 attacks forced us to pay attention to the fact that we had enemies and they were making war on us.  We didn’t pay so much attention if the American victims died in Europe, Africa or the Middle East. For some, it was better to pretend the problem was small and remote. But the pre-9/11 innocence was, itself, a form of denial, a seemingly endless sleep going back to the 1970s. That the “newspaper of record” would report on a mysterious airline explosion in 1988 without even raising the possibility of terrorism goes beyond prudence and caution. It reflects a willed desire not to connect the dots. 

There’s a line of poetry by Yeats, “In dreams begin responsibilities.”  In our era, wakefulness brings responsibilities. Unwanted responsibilities, but also unavoidable.  Sleep brings freedom from these anxieties, I suppose, but we can’t all sleep at the same time.


3 thoughts on “The world of December 21, 1988

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