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Leaving Lockerbie Behind

CAMBRIDGE – Last month, Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, the former Libyan intelligence officer convicted in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, died in his home in Tripoli. With his burial, the engrained mistrust between Libya and the West, epitomized by Lockerbie’s enduring political potency, should be interred as well. It is time to move on.

Over the last 24 years, the debates surrounding Megrahi’s prosecution and punishment have reflected Libya’s enigmatic relationship with the West. For example, though Libya’s economy is almost entirely dependent on Western expertise and markets to produce and consume its oil, former leader Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi pursued a virulently anti-Western foreign policy. Likewise, rather than seeking those truly responsible for the Lockerbie bombing, the United States and the United Kingdom wielded the tragedy as a diplomatic weapon against Libya.

This mutual mistrust and recrimination is more than a century old. In 1912, Italy, without provocation, wrested Libya from the Ottoman Empire. Ten years later, Benito Mussolini rose to power, and soon after, Italian authorities pursued ethnic cleansing of the Cyrenaican Bedouin, killing more than a quarter of the Libyan population.

After World War II, Italy renounced its claim to Libya in its peace treaty with the Allies. After a failed attempt to win United Nations approval to divide Libya into three trusteeships, Britain, which conquered the territory in 1942 and governed it for eight years, drew on US support to install Idris as-Sanussi as a united Libya’s first and only king.