On the evening of December 21, 1988, Pan American Flight 103 tumbled out of the sky over Scotland, plowing into the town of Lockerbie. A total of 270 people were killed, most of them passengers on the Boeing 747, but some of them residents of the town. Scottish and American authorities launched a massive investigation which determined that a bomb was used to sabotage the plane. "A terrorist act!" declared the press and a search was made for the culprits. Three years later the U.S. accused two Libyan intelligence agents of bombing the plane and demanded their extradition to the U.S. for trial. Because Libya refused to hand them over, the U.S. applied sanctions that remain to this day. The ensuing struggle over this tragedy continues.
Since April 15, 1992 the U.N. Security Council has banned all flights to and from Libya, and other military and diplomatic sanctions have also been put in place. On the day before the sanction went into effect, Libya's airport at Tripoli was crammed with last minute travelers. As midnight approached, the last airliner departed leaving a desolate runway and terminal that has remained so since. Libyans wishing to travel abroad must take a long taxi ride to neighboring Tunis or a ferry to Malta, both expensive and inconvenient. This is the post Cold War world of "cooperation", where all airlines rely on a centralized payments and settlements mechanism. Airlines that wish to continue benefiting from the sale of tickets and retain their international certification will not violate U.N. decrees. Even Arab national airlines have remained remarkably cooperative in removing Baghdad and Tripoli from their list of destinations.
While not as crushing as the Iraqi sanctions, this travel ban, as well as other sanctions, has heaped a daily insult on this small Arab nation even as it proves the futility of defying the West. As the years have ticked by, Libya has steadfastly refused to surrender the two men to be tried in a British or U.S. court. "That Libya hand its sons to the United States or Britain, this...is a ridiculous demand," said Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi at a press conference last October. He has, however, offered to have them tried in a third "neutral" country where their rights will supposedly be guaranteed.
In February, the World Court ruled that it would hear Libyan arguments that a 1971 aviation convention permits Libya to put the bombing suspects on trial in Libya. While Libya regards this as a victory, it is also negotiating with lawyers of the crash victims' families to try the men in the third country, perhaps in the Netherlands, before an international panel of judges working under Scottish laws and procedures. ("Libyan Suspects Ready for Trial", ABC News, 4-21-98). This compromise reveals the pressure on Libyan leadership to resolve the impasse and remove the international stigma of sanctions from their country.
The history of Libyan/U.S. relations goes back much further than the short attention span of the current generation. Occasionally, the media reminds Americans of the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 and the facts are presented in such a way as to suggest that we are the victims of an unprovoked "terrorist attack." The history of American involvement in the Middle East suggests otherwise.
In the late eighteenth century North Africa was largely a Mediterranean haven for pirates. In 1784 the U.S. paid tribute to the Qaramanlly dynasty in Tripoli for pirate protection. In 1801 Tripoli raised its rates and began seizing American ships, resulting in the Tripolitan war of 1801-1805 which the U.S. won. After being invaded and reconquered by different powers, including Italy in 1911 and the U.S., Britain and France in 1943, Libya achieved independence in 1951. In 1969 a revolution brought Army Col. Muammar Abou Minyar al Qadhafi to power and he remains so to this day.
After coming to power in 1969, Colonel Qadhafi asked the U.S. to close down Wheelus Field, its air base just outside of Tripoli. The U.S. complied, but this did not prevent U.S./Libyan relations from sliding downhill from there. Qadhafi is an ardent Arab nationalist and has consistently resisted the hegemony being built around the Middle East by the U.S. and Western powers. Resentments flared in 1979 after the Shah of Iran was overthrown and Ayatollah Khomeini took power. Qadhafi's anti-American rhetoric increased. An angry mob stormed the U.S. embassy in Tripoli, supposedly with the approval of the Libyan leadership.
In 1981 Qadhafi declared the Gulf of Sidra (also spelled "Sitre") to be sovereign Libyan territory. This was a departure from the international standard of twelve miles from shore, but it was less than the 200-mile buffer zone the U.S. declared from its own shores in the 1970's. With typical Arab flourish, Qadhafi declared the entrance to the gulf to be "the line of death." Not willing to brook an affront to its superiority the U.S. sent a carrier battle group into the Gulf of Sidra. It wasn't long before U.S. Navy fighter jets had engaged two Libyan aircraft, shooting them down.
The U.S. Navy kept the pressure on Qadhafi, crossing over "the line of death" whenever the opportunity arose. In early 1986 Libyan warplanes were engaged once again by the U.S. Navy over the gulf, providing the backdrop for the first scenes in the popular American movie, "Top Gun." The U.S. then sank four Libyan patrol boats, reportedly killing 35 Libyan sailors, and destroyed Libyan missile and radar facilities. The Libyans were no match for the U.S. fleet.
Not long after this engagement a "terrorist" bomb went off at a West Berlin discotheque. One American serviceman was killed, as were two other persons. U.S. intelligence intercepted a vague communication from the Libyan embassy in East Berlin to Qadhafi's headquarters that said, "The attack was carried out successfully, without leaving a trace behind." On this evidence alone President Reagan ordered the bombing of Tripoli. U.S. F-111 bombers took off from a British air base and joined other U.S. bombers and support aircraft. Air traffic controllers on the Mediterranean island of Malta observed a blizzard of "blips" crossing their radar screens toward Libya. U.S. warplanes bombed "selected targets" in the cities of Tripoli and Benghazi, killing up to 100 people and wounding dozens more, according to foreign diplomats (statistics vary). One of those "selected targets" was the Qadhafi residence. A bomb killed his 15-month old daughter, and most of the other casualties of the raid were civilian men, women and children. The U.S. lost two aviators.
According to the U.S. news media, Qadhafi was rarely seen in public after the bombing of Tripoli -- his heated rhetoric and flamboyant gestures silenced by the brush with death. Qadhafi was back in his box and an example made of him, or so they would have us believe. For a time he faded from the media radar screen. Suddenly on December 21, 1988, Pan Am 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland. After a meticulous search, investigators found that a small bomb hidden in a transistor radio packed in a suitcase exploded, causing the plane to crash. The components of the bomb were traced to two men later identified as Libyan intelligence agents. The U.S. demanded that Libya do the impossible -- turn the agents over to be tried in a U.S. court.
Since then, the U.S. has kept the pressure on Libya by applying sanctions through the U.N Security Council, sanctimoniously branding Libya as a "rogue state" while disregarding a 1986 resolution by the U.N. General Assembly, calling on the U.S. to compensate Libya for its 1986 attack. Further, in the spring of 1996, a U.S. Pentagon official made a bellicose statement supporting a nuclear strike on an alleged Libyan chemical weapons factory, a statement that further reveals the endless absurdity of U.S. policy.
In early May of 1997, Qadhafi, in defiance of U.N. sanctions, traveled by air to neighboring Nigeria and Niger for an official state visit. The U.S. was furious at both Qadhafi and his hosts. Said State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns, "Now, Qadhafi, in his joy ride last week, may have had a lot of fun breaking out of Libya for the first time in a long, long time. But that is going to be short-lived, because what we hope will happen internationally is that the UN condemnation that he deserves - and that Niger and Nigeria deserve - will lead to a strengthening of the commitment by the United Nations to maintain the sanctions on Libya until Libya turns over the two suspects - Libyan security agents, currently living freely in Libya - who we believe planted the bomb on board Pan Am 103 that killed all those people nine years ago." According to Burns, the U.S. would also be pursuing sanctions against Niger and Nigeria for receiving a visit from the "rogue leader." (State Dept. press briefing).
What Mr. Burns did not emphasize in his news conference is that many of the Arab nations are tired of being bullied by the U.S. sanctions machine. In a March meeting foreign ministers in the Organization of the Islamic Conference denounced the sanctions against Libya as "unjust" and called for their removal. They also reaffirmed resolutions adopted by the Arab League, the Organization of African Unity and the Non-Aligned movement. While these organizations have often opposed U.S. policy, they do reflect the growing resentment of western domination among Arabs in the Middle East. A much different picture is painted by the U.S. media, however. The bloody Al-Sabah family of Kuwait, King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, as well as the other dictators of the Persian Gulf kingdoms, seem cordial with Washington and welcome the robust U.S. military presence in their neighborhood. What is not apparent is that this official welcome is purchased with a steady flow of western wealth and technology. Their U.S. trained and equipped security apparatus suppresses domestic unrest from the more patriotic Arabs. Other Islamic countries such as Iraq, Iran, and Sudan that do not fully cooperate are branded as "pariah states", sanctioned and isolated by a U.S.-dominated U.N. Security Council.
Since 1981 the United States claimed that Libya is a sponsor of terrorism, hosting "training camps for terrorists" and even granting the notorious terrorist mastermind Abu Nidal refuge. This may all be true. It may also be true that Qadhafi is a tyrant by Western standards, even though he seems to enjoy popular support among his people. What Americans do not hear about is Qadhafi's contempt for U.S. sponsorship of terrorist groups such as the Nicaraguan Contras and U.S. support of terrorist regimes in Chile, Guatemala and El Salvador. Qadhafi knows the U.S. is an old hand at terror.
President Reagan called the Contras "freedom fighters" and Qadhafi must describe his brethren in the struggle against the "Great Satan" in the same way. One man's terrorist is another's freedom fighter. Terrorism is subjectively defined depending on the interests at stake. If Libya engaged in terrorism by bombing the Berlin discotheque, then the U.S. engaged in terrorism by bombing the cities of Tripoli and Benghazi. This is called "state terrorism" -- where one side sneaked and the other side used war planes. This "tit for tat" escalated until a Boeing 747 full of people plunged to the ground. Who is really to blame?
The U.S. has proven its superiority in conventional warfare and the use of brute force. Unconventional warfare, sometimes defined as guerrilla warfare, is often the recourse of nations and peoples that have lost every legitimate recourse in the loss of their freedom. Overwhelming military force often moves the conflict to softer civilian targets, as was clearly the case with the U.S./Libyan conflict. This generation has grown up with the image of the stereotypical middle-eastern terrorist, crazed and unshaven, hijacking airliners, kidnapping and blowing people up. What does not occur to the typical American mind is that these people hate us for a good reason. They are doing what they do because their culture, religion and national identity are the targets of a slow motion genocide being inflicted upon them by the West.
This cultural genocide is revealed in the bold demand by the U.S. that Libya turn over its two agents accused of bombing Pan Am 103. To do this would be completely contrary to the Arab sense of honor. Qadhafi would have to become a traitor to those who serve him and to his own people. Capitulation to these demands would be offensive to the national psyche, demoralize the military and divide his country. If Qadhafi capitulates and throws his men to the dogs, sanctions will have accomplished what the U.S. fleet could not -- the collapse of the Libyan national will. This is the primary objective of U.S. foreign policy toward Libya and the other so-called "pariah states."
We may have sympathy for those people who experienced the shock and horror of those last few moments on Pan Am 103. We may sympathize with the family members of those who died who have not been able to find closure these nine-and-a-half years. While we soberly consider the pain and suffering caused by terrorism, we must also regard it as the increasing cost of state terrorism.
In his book, 1984 George Orwell described the "two minutes of hate" where workers would gather before a television screen to revile the state's enemies. This is our evening news, more genteel than Orwell's, but also more effective in creating public consent for state crimes. Concerned mainly with our material comforts, we have become callous and indifferent to human life. As we mindlessly revile the state's enemies or remain silent when they are oppressed, we become willing accomplices in murder and oppression. We may fully expect that sooner or later the consequences will come home to roost.
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