My Lai and Lockerbie Reconsidered
This article originally appeared on TomDispatch
A week ago, two convicted mass murderers leaped back into public consciousness as news coverage of their stories briefly intersected. One was freed from prison, continuing to proclaim his innocence, and his release was vehemently denounced in the United States as were the well-wishers who welcomed him home. The other expressed his contrition, after almost 35 years living in his country in a state of freedom, and few commented.
When Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, the Libyan sentenced in 2001 to twenty-seven years in prison for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, was released from incarceration by the Scottish government on "compassionate grounds," a furor erupted. On August 22nd, ABC World News with Charles Gibson featured a segment on outrage over the Libyan's release. It was aired shortly before a report on an apology offered by William Calley, who, in 1971 as a young lieutenant, was sentenced to life in prison for the massacre of civilians in the Vietnamese village of My Lai.
After al-Megrahi, who served eight years in prison, arrived home to a hero's welcome in Libya, officials in Washington expressed their dismay. To White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, it was "outrageous and disgusting"; to President Barrack Obama, "highly objectionable." Calley, who admitted at trial to killing Vietnamese civilians personally, but served only three years of house arrest following an intervention by President Richard Nixon, received a standing ovation from the Kiwanis Club of Greater Columbus, Georgia, the city where he lived for years following the war. (He now resides in Atlanta.) For him, there was no such uproar, and no one, apparently, thought to ask either Gibbs or the president for comment, despite the eerie confluence of the two men and their fates.
Part of the difference in treatment was certainly the passage of time and Calley's contrition, however many decades delayed, regarding the infamous massacre of more than 500 civilians. "There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened that day in My Lai," the Vietnam veteran told his audience. "I feel remorse for the Vietnamese who were killed, for their families, for the American soldiers involved and their families. I am very sorry." For his part, al-Megrahi, now dying of cancer, accepted that relatives of the 270 victims of the Lockerbie bombing "have hatred for me. It's natural to behave like this...They believe I'm guilty, which in reality I'm not. One day the truth won't be hiding as it is now. We have an Arab saying: 'The truth never dies.'"
Calley was charged in the deaths of more than 100 civilians and convicted in the murder of twenty-two in one village, while al-Megrahi was convicted of the murder of 270 civilians aboard one airplane. Almost everyone, it seems, found it perverse, outrageous, or "gross and callous" that the Scottish government allowed a convicted mass murderer to return to a homeland where he was greeted with open arms. No one seemingly thought it odd that another mass murderer had lived freely in his home country for so long. The families of the Lockerbie victims were widely interviewed. As the Calley story broke, no American reporter apparently thought it worth the bother to look for the families of the My Lai victims, let alone ask them what they thought of the apology of the long-free officer who had presided over, and personally taken part in the killing of, their loved ones.
Whatever the official response to al-Megrahi, the lack of comment on Calley underscores a longstanding American aversion to facing what the US did to Vietnam and its people during a war that ended more than 30 years ago. Since then, one cover-up of mass murder after another has unraveled and bubbled into view. These have included the mass killing of civilians in the Mekong Delta village of Thanh Phong by future senator Bob Kerrey and the SEAL team he led (exposed by the New York Times Magazine and CBS News in 2001); a long series of atrocities (including murders, torture, and mutilations) involving the deaths of hundreds of noncombatants largely committed in Quang Ngai Province (where My Lai is also located) by an elite US unit, the Tiger Force (exposed by the Toledo Blade in 2003); seven massacres, 78 other attacks on noncombatants, and 141 instances of torture, among other atrocities (exposed by the Los Angeles Times in 2006); a massacre of civilians by US Marines in Quang Nam Province's Le Bac hamlet (exposed in In These Times magazine in 2008); and the slaughter of thousands of Vietnamese in the Mekong Delta during Operation Speedy Express (exposed in The Nation magazine, also in 2008). Over the last decade, long suppressed horrors from Vietnam have been piling up, indicating not only that My Lai, horrific and iconic as it may have been, was no isolated incident, but that many American veterans have long lived with memories not unlike those of William Calley.