August 21, 2003

August 21, 2003 | Commentary on Europe

What Price for a Life?

What price would you place on the head of your nearest and dearest?

Most of us would recoil at the thought of anything so awful as to profit from the death of someone near to us. How could any amount of money compensate for the loss of a child, a spouse or a parent?

It is certainly no wonder that families of the victims of Pan Am 103 have reacted with anger and outrage at Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi's blatant new attempt to buy Libya's way back into company of civilized nations. How could they do otherwise, given all they have been through for the past 15 years?

On Friday, Libya signaled that it is finally willing to accept some kind of "responsibility" for the terrorist attack that in 1988 blew the American airliner Pan Am 103 out of the sky over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people. "Libya as a sovereign state accepts responsibilities [sic] for the actions of its officials," Libyan Ambassador Ahmed A. Own said in a letter delivered to the U.N. Security Council.

As will be recalled, two Libyan officials went on trial for this terrorist act in 1999, and one was convicted in 2001. Gadhafi has always previously denied any personal involvement, even though terrorism on the magnitude perpetrated by Libyan agents in the 1980s clearly could not have happened without his approval.

"We know that Gadhafi did endless horrible things. The minimum is that we should never deal with Libya while he is in power." says Susan Cohen, whose daughter Theodora, a Syracuse University drama student, was killed in the attack.

"We are very unhappy about the way the way the offer is structured," she adds. "It is a bribe, which almost makes the families agents of Libya."

What Libya is offering is in a cold and calculated installment plan. Each family may get as much as $10 million, but the money comes with conditions. The first $4 million will be delivered when U.N. sanctions are lifted. Another $4 million will follow if U.S. sanctions are lifted, and delivery of the final $2 million will be contingent upon Libya's removal from the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Mrs. Cohen says that she and her husband will accept the payment deriving from the U.N. sanctions, but a dime from the lifting of U.S. sanctions, which they regard as a personal bribe to influence U.S. policy towards Libya.

As a consequence of the Libyan statement and offer, the U.N. Security Council may vote to lift U.N. sanctions this week. The U.S. and British governments appear willing to go along, but the Bush administration ought to take public stand against it. This is just not right.

Ironically, it may be the French government that does the right thing for the wrong reason. French families of victims of a Libyan terrorist act against a French airliner over Niger in 1989 have previously received a settlement of $35 million. The French government is now finding this amount woefully insufficient by comparison with the amount offered the Americans. As a consequence, France may veto the Libyan settlement in the Security Council.

(Why the difference in compensation, you might wonder. Well, France does not have a record of bombing Libya in retaliation, as did President Ronald Reagan after the Libyan bombing of a Berlin disco in 1986, which killed two American servicemen.)

But there is more to this case than settling old scores. Under Gadhafi, Libya will undoubtedly continue to be a sponsor of terrorism. An unclassified CIA report to Congress earlier this year stated that Libya has a "continuing interest in nuclear weapons" and "still appeared to be working hard" in 2002 to develop biological and chemical weapons.

And Gadhafi's hand shows wherever there's trouble in Africa. He's a friend of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. The disastrous Charles Taylor, ousted Liberian dictator, is one of his protégées. Gadhafi reportedly tried unsuccessfully to send Taylor one last shipment of weapons and ammunition before the latter was forced into exile last week. Having fallen out with other Arab leaders, Gadhafi now oddly sees himself as an African leader, promoting "Africa for Africans." His leadership is surely the last thing the struggling continent needs. What is clear, though, is that Gadhafi has grand ambitions.

We should not help him fulfill those ambitions by lifting sanctions and allowing Libya to tap into lucrative oil U.S. contract, which await him. If Gadhafi really wants to take responsibility for the tragedy Libyan agents inflicted on American and British families over Lockerbie in 1988, he ought to resign. Bet you he never thought of that.

Helle Dale  is deputy director of the Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation. 

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom