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Conspiracy theories aside

Reframing al-Megrahi

Noted human-rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson QC thinks Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi is the “Lockerbie bomber“,1 and ought not to have been released: al-Megrahi is, after all,

an unrepentant and cold-blooded mass-murderer

To be scrupulously accurate (as you might think would befit a silk): al-Megrahi is “unrepentant” in the sense that he has always protested his innocence. Normally one would describe a man as “unrepentant” who admitted performing an act but was not sorry for it. Still, if he denies ever committing the act in question, I suppose he is a fortiori unrepentant about it as well. But al-Megrahi’s unrepentance is not, of course, the only reason Robertson considers him guilty. There is the question of what went on in the heads of some number of experienced Scottish judges:

the question of Megrahi’s guilt [was] proved beyond reasonable doubt in the minds of eight experienced Scottish judges.

To arrive at the figure of eight judges, Robertson has presumably added the three judges who convicted Megrahi to the five judges who refused his first appeal in 2002. But was the question of Megrahi’s guilt proved beyond reasonable doubt in the five appeal judges’ minds? As a matter of fact, the appeal judgment explicitly states that the judges were not in the business of re-deciding the question of Megrahi’s culpability:

[I]n this appeal we have not required to consider whether the evidence before the trial court, apart from the evidence which it rejected, was sufficient as a matter of law to entitle it to convict the appellant on the basis set out in its judgment. We have not had to consider whether the verdict of guilty was one which no reasonable trial court, properly directing itself, could have returned in the light of that evidence. As can be seen from this Opinion, the grounds of appeal before us have been concerned, for the most part, with complaints about the treatment by the trial court of the material which was before it and the submissions which were made to it by the defence.

So much for eight judges being convinced beyond reasonable doubt of Megrahi’s guilt. You might think this a sloppy or misleading characterization of the judge-mind arithmetic by Robertson, but three out of a claimed eight is still something, isn’t it? And those three original trial judges were “experienced”, mind you. Plus, they were Scottish?

Anyway, perhaps the most piquant expression of Robertson’s stout certainty on this matter comes in a more recent article that denounces Gaddafi as “the worst man left in the world”:2

If Megrahi was guilty of the Lockerbie bombing (and, conspiracy theories aside, the evidence justified the verdict), then Gaddafi must have given the order.

Conspiracy theories aside? Er, the case against Megrahi was a conspiracy theory, in competition with another conspiracy theory, that the PFLP-GC did it. There is, of course, also an overarching theory about possible conspiracy to pervert the course of the investigation and trial. This story, one can hardly deny, is all about conspiracy theories wherever you look. If Robertson chooses to believe one conspiracy theory and discount the others, he can hardly be claiming to set all conspiracy theories aside. Which conspiracy theory do you believe, readers?

  1. Thanks to Daniel F.
  2. There’s something curious about this “left” — calling Gaddafi “the worst man left” — as though we were in the midst of a global clean-up operation (whose notable successes have included, perhaps, the “removal” of Saddam), and it only remained for us to round up the last few stragglers.
5 comments
  1. 1  Gregor  September 24, 2009, 9:20 am 

    ‘Which conspiracy theory do you believe, readers?’

    I don’t know enough about the trial to say, but from what I do know, it had some very dubious aspects.

    ‘Conspiracy theory’ is itself a piece of unspeak which seems to mean ‘differing from the status quo opinion of the mainstream political/ media establishment’. It is interesting that some ‘rationalists’ like to use this meaningless word, which is harmful to rational debate, and have rushed to praise Aaronovitch’s book on the subject.

    For example, I don’t think anyone would say it was a ‘conspiracy theory’ that the FSB blew up apartment blocks in Russia. Yet they would say that only a tin foil hatted loon would wonder why the government has been blocking a public enquiry into the 7/7 bombings.

    That is not to argue that the government were responsible, but rather that the media has become very poor at investigative journalism and at pressuring the government.

    It is not to deny that there is a lot of bullshit out there about lizard people (etc) yet it seems that by placing everything under a blanket term, it discourages people from asking some good questions.

    And as in this case, there are often counter conspiracies. For example, the show trials could be blamed on a misguided conspiracy theory, but they were part of a very true conspiracy to massacre the Kulaks.

    For another thing, there is the argument that real conspiracies are unsuccessful, which is bullshit again. Look how long the tobacco companies hid evidence that cigarettes cause cancer.

  2. 2  Steven  September 24, 2009, 10:13 am 

    The discussions of Aaronovitch’s book at AW(IWoD) (eg) were extremely helpful in convincing me that I didn’t need to read it.

    But one of the odd things about the dismissive usage of “conspiracy theories” by Robertson in particular is that, as a barrister, he presumably knows that there is a criminal offence of conspiracy under which people are often convicted, since, as everyone knows, conspiracies do actually happen.

  3. 3  hardindr  September 24, 2009, 1:55 pm 

    Conspiracy theories are a topic of real research in political science, at least in the US. Not ever conspiracy is a “conspiracy theory.” Conspiracy theories are a long-standing problem in the political discourse in the US. You can read a recent report by an expert on conspiracy theories in the US here http://www.publiceye.org/consp.....index.html . Further reading can be found here http://www.publiceye.org/conspire/index.html .

  4. 4  Steven  September 24, 2009, 2:21 pm 

    On World at One today they referred to “the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing”. It would be interesting to know whether that reflects a deliberate policy.

    Plus, this today from Hugh Miles.

  5. 5  richard  September 24, 2009, 8:33 pm 

    …and films like “Conspiracy Theory” nicely defuse the possibility that once in a while, one might turn out to be true.
    Although Mel Gibson as a mentally unstable taxi driver should have given it a certain verite edge.



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