The Final Headline

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May 20th, 2012, the morning of my sister’s wedding, I was lying in my father’s childhood bed when I read the news that his murderer1 had died.

Nearly 25 years had passed since my father was one of the 270 people killed in the Bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, enough time for my sister to grow from a not-quite two-year-old to the woman who would be walking down the aisle that afternoon. When I read the news, I called my mom, who was at the salon with my sister and the bridesmaids, asking if she’d seen it yet. She hadn’t, and relayed the news to the other women assembled. I heard, distantly through the phone my mom forgot to hang up, as my sister burst into tears and my mom forced her out of the makeup chair. She could have a good cry outside, but they had a schedule to keep.

At the wedding venue that afternoon, the news hung in the air, almost serving as a Rorschach test for the attendees’ beliefs about the nature of the universe. The wedding planner asked my sister if she’d gotten our father’s present, and she nearly burst into tears again. The religious sorts claimed it was God smiling upon the union2. As an atheist, I deflected, merely agreeing how weird it was, how life is full of coincidences.

The one thing we could all agree on, though, was that this was it.

This was the final headline.

*******

Living on the West Coast, I’m used to having the news happen while I sleep—I moved to Seattle three weeks before 9/11, a day whose horrors were over before I got back from the dorm shower and logged into my computer. It makes sense, geographically: We’re three hours behind the East Coast, eight hours behind the closest part of Europe. The world’s day is nearly done by the time mine starts.

And so, I long ago got used to reading headlines in the morning, keenly aware that any given day, an ambush could await. When the Pan Am 103 criminal trial happened in 2000-2001, the judges gave the families the courtesy of letting us know a day in advance that the verdict was coming down, but that was the exception. That morning, I woke up even earlier than normal for school, so I could watch the news. Lamin Khalifah Fhimah was ruled not guilty, while Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was found guilty, and given a life sentence.

Eight years passed. In that time, Megrahi’s compassionate release due to prostate cancer was long-rumored, but the August 20, 2009 decision was sudden, and something I read about in the morning when I awoke. That night, I spoke with both my mom and my sister, and learned that the two of them had gotten in a fight about it—my sister vented to my mom, who asked, “What do you want me to do about it?” My mom meant it as sincere, my sister took it as glib. At least that’s the impression I got.

My attitude was different: One way or another, this man was dying a slow, painful death halfway around the world from me. Why did I care where? Scotland wasn’t showing him compassion, it was letting his family say goodbye, giving them a chance we never had.

The good news, from my perspective, was that it was one less headline left.

For years, I had thought in terms of headlines, news that could possibly still be left related to my father’s long-ago demise. The criminal trial began in May 2000, and I watched from afar as stories came and went: The trial. The appeals. The negotiations with Libya over reparations, of which we were skeptical. The first payment from Libya. The second. The third and final, weeks before the 20th anniversary of the bombing. And, nine months later, Megrahi’s release.

Which meant there were only two left, only two that seemed likely, at least: al-Megrahi’s death, and the death of the mastermind behind it all, Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

The end was in sight.

*******

At first, it seemed that Libya would be immune to the Arab Spring, and when the Libyan Revolution began, I was skeptical. I think we all were, the idea that Gaddafi, after decades in power, would be toppled. He was the boogeyman, the strongman, the supervillain, complete with his Ukrainian nurse henchwomen, who would only lose control by losing his life. When word came in August 2011 that he had been deposed, it felt sudden, even if it had been a long time coming. An extra headline, but a happy one, as I bear no ill will towards the country he oppressed.

Two months later, I awoke one morning to discover Gaddafi had been beaten and killed by his fellow Libyans while I slept. I went about my day as normal, taking a moment to celebrate with my fellow volunteers, because they wanted to talk about it more than I did. When my mom called from a vacation in the south of France to ask if I’d seen the news, I told her that, of course I had. One headline down, one left to go.

With Megrahi’s death the following spring, the morning of the wedding, it was all over. One phase of our lives ended, right as my sister began a new chapter of hers. It was perfect timing. Too perfect, in fact.

*******

In 2006, I read The Boy Who Fell Out of the Sky, a memoir by Ken Dornstein about losing his older brother in the same attack that killed my father. I had a hard time with it, but not for the reasons one might expect: While I was able to put a distance between my emotions and his own in dealing with his brother’s death, Dornstein’s book was so well-written that I felt a connection to him. I felt like we were friends, even though we’d never met, and as he detailed his tribulations in the aftermath, there were many times I wanted to reach out and give him advice, tell him that the path he was going down wouldn’t end well.

In the end, I was wrong.

At the time, I was working on a memoir of my own, but Dornstein’s was one of several books I read that made me reconsider my approach. I scrapped that project entirely, and started a new one from scratch, which I’ve been working on ever since.

A few weeks ago, I received an email from my mom, which contained a joint statement from the Police Service of Scotland, Crown Office, FBI, and U.S. Department of Justice, in which, because the Pan Am 103 investigation is still considered an open case, they declined to comment on a then-upcoming documentary by Dornstein, of which I was previously unaware.

To be honest, I didn’t watch the documentary. I didn’t even watch the trailer I just linked. Maybe one day, I will, but I paid it no mind at all until Thursday morning, when I woke up, scrolled through the Huffington Post, and discovered a familiar photo of a destroyed cockpit lying in the Scottish grass. Another headline, out of nowhere.

Part of the agreement that brought Fhimah and Megrahi to trial, more than fifteen years ago, was that nobody else would be prosecuted. But that agreement was made with the Gaddafi regime, and I suppose the new Libyan government could easily reneg.

To be clear, I don’t want to criticize Dornstein. If anything, I applaud his tenacity, and his ability to find answers where nobody else ever could. Everyone deals with grief in different ways, and his search for justice seems to be bearing fruit, at long last.

But personally, I’ve long ago moved on, as much as I ever can. I don’t want another trial, regardless of how complicit these two men might be. It’s been nearly 27 years since my father was murdered—enough time for the Berlin Wall, Twin Towers, and Cuban Embargo to all fall. Enough time to fight two unjust wars, to elect a African-American president, to make peace with Iran. Enough time to make the home PC go from a rarity to ubiquitous to nearly obsolete. The world has been reshaped radically—and in the case of climate change, literally.

Twenty-seven years. My father lived 35, while Dornstein’s brother died at only 19. Maybe that’s why Dornstein keeps fighting the good fight, when I long ago quit. Maybe it’s a generational thing. Maybe it’s that he was older than I am, that he remembers his brother far more vividly than I remember my dad, so he has a far better idea what it is exactly that he lost.

Justice is a different thing for different people. Fair isn’t always fair. And so it is, that Ken Dornstein goes out into the world, trying to bring justice to those who have eluded it for a lifetime. For me, though, justice is a different thing entirely.

For me, justice is peace. Justice is quiet. Justice is living my life as I see fit, like my dad would have wanted. And, most of all, justice is a morning where there’s no fear of a headline accompanied by a photo of a cockpit lying in the Scottish grass.

Justice is the story’s end. The final headline.

  1. Or, more accurately, the one person ever convicted in his murder
  2. Which has since failed.

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