The Longest Journey: Ten Years After Pan Am Flight 103 Blew Up, Justice Looms the Horizon. But It May Be Just a Mirage.

The Longest Journey: Ten Years After Pan Am Flight 103 Blew Up, Justice Looms the Horizon. But It May Be Just a Mirage.
By Paul Hendrickson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 3, 1998; Page D01

JOPPATOWNE, Md.—A tough old Marine is showing you his son's room. This man's name is George Williams, and his son, his namesake, his only child, was called Geordie, which is pronounced "Jordy." When Geordie Williams died at 24 a decade ago, he was in the service of his country, stationed in Germany, coming home on Christmas leave, and he didn't just die, no, he exploded in midair, 31,000 feet up, inside a 747 jumbo jet christened Clipper Maid of the Seas. When they found 1st Lt. George W. Williams, along with the others, in a heretofore unheard-of Scottish place called Lockerbie, his face was little more than a black hole. His body was folded over on itself. Not all his limbs were intact. George Williams the elder says he knows these things, because he demanded to see some pictures.

"George, they're terrible, you don't want to see them," a family lawyer, who had them temporarily in his possession, said. "You'll show them to me or I'll make a parking lot out of your office," the tough old Marine answered evenly.

The photographs were passed to the family doctor; he, too, tried to shield George Williams. To the family priest; he also begged that they be filed away unseen. But in the end, the father saw what he had to see. "There was no way I couldn't," he says. He had to look a long time.

Right now, the father is looking a long time, at relics of a life that went away cruelly, far too soon. Geordie's room is upstairs, at the back of the house. Everything in this room is perfectly intact: sport shirts, sweat socks, books, track medals, prom mementos. The bed seems freshly made, the spread pulled just-so over the pillows. There is a lamp on a table, and someone has switched it on. It is any son's room, really, or at least any son's room that has been straightened by a loving mother or father.

It's as if the owner of the room is only temporarily absent, at college, at camp: that Orioles hat left on the bed. The guitar propped in the corner. In a small album on the night stand are snapshots of a father-son fishing trip to Key West. This was in 1986, two years before the event the world knows as the terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. Geordie's mom, Judy Williams, went along on that Florida fishing trip, too.

She isn't here today. Maybe she didn't wish to face this grief all over again with a stranger.

"Yeah, we hooked an Atlantic sailfish," the father says, thumb-flipping through the snaps. "Well, I hooked him. I was only two months out of a heart operation. I wanted to land him myself. I said, 'Geordie, I've hooked him, you take over.' "

He turns toward the dresser, picks up a gold wristwatch with an expansion band. The way he has picked it up seems instructive: as if it were made of bone china. He looks at it intently, almost as if he's seeing it for the first time. He places it in his palm, moves his hand up and down slowly, as if he's trying to test it for resistance to force or maybe just to gauge how much it weighs. Then a father says, softly, so seemingly un-Marine-like: "I think he must have had this on when he came down, when he fell."

Even now, there are moments when a tough old American, who is a recovering alcoholic, finds it so hard to say the word die. This man, 67, retired, married for 45 years to the same woman, once had a job repossessing cars in bad Baltimore neighborhoods. This man, handsome and athletic with his full head of wavy silvered hair, was once a scout-sniper in Korea. This man -- who has worked as a postal clerk and real estate salesman and beer truck driver, but who now devotes most of his days and some of his nights to serving as president of a victims'-families group called Victims of Pan Am Flight 103 -- will tell you unblinkingly that he cried every day for two years after his boy fell.

"Every day for two years," he says.

He'll tell you also how he and his son used to kiss each other, deep into adulthood. "We stopped doing it when he was about 15 or 16," he says. "Then, when it was time to go off to college, he kissed me. So it came back then. And it never stopped."

But of course it did stop, it stopped forever, after Dec. 21, 1988.


Think about it: It's a crime that's never had closure. There has never been justice, or even something approaching justice. The years have dragged on. Suspects are known, have long been known. Their names are Lamen Khalifa Fhimah and Abdel Basset Megrahi, and they are Libyan, and they were indicted in this country and in Britain as long ago as 1991. The two are said to be -- or to have once been -- senior intelligence agents of the Libyan government. They are free. They've never been handed over for justice by Libya, there has never been any kind of arraignment, much less a trial.

What must the dragging-on do to the families of those who died on Pan Am 103?

Think about it: In the Oklahoma City bombing, they caught the guy fast, same day, had an eventual trial, an eventual conviction. Family members, holding on to one another, were able to come into court and say what their losses meant. That kind of redemptive moment has never come to the families of Pan Am 103.

Some of whom have long been in fierce disagreement with one another about how justice should be achieved. There are rival and overlapping and contentious groups of grieving victim-families in this case, and it is no use to pretend otherwise. There have been various suits and countersuits, and there are far too many lawyers to count. But is this so strange? Abject grief has a way of doing such things to people.

Think about it: Two suspects, accused of bombing the U.S. Embassy in Kenya last month, have been apprehended. They were brought to America almost overnight, or so it must have seemed to the Pan Am families. The two suspects in the Nairobi terrorist attack of Aug. 7 were flown to the United States separately and then arraigned on counts of multiple murder, following the largest overseas investigation in American history, according to U.S. officials. "A major breakthrough after just 20 days," is the way the front page of this newspaper trumpeted the news.

What must that have felt like to the families of Pan Am 103? Four months from now, the terrorist bombing of Pan Am 103 will mark its 10th anniversary. Still no resolution. The several victim groups that have come out of the tragedy will acknowledge the anniversary with somber memorials.

There are 270 victim-families of Pan Am 103: Which is to say, 259 people died in the air, and 11 more died on the ground. About 7:15 p.m., on Dec. 21, 1988, over a place with about 3,000 residents, where there's been an annual sheep sale since 1680, the sky began to rain chunks of aircraft metal. It rained bodies in flame, and pieces of bodies. Wallets and suitcases and meal trays and gold watches all came down. A wing dug a grotesque gash through the town. The plane's nose cone landed on its side in a pasture four miles from the village. It looked, as one Newsweek reporter observed, like the decapitated head of some stricken, confused fish.

The plane had been just 38 minutes out of London Heathrow. There were 189 Americans aboard: students who were under the auspices of a Syracuse University study-abroad program, businessmen, servicemen, tourists. The mood must have been so festive, it was Christmastime, folks were going home.

And then it happened. No one survived. The average age of the dead was 27.

Early suspicion was trained on Iran and Syria. But the trail of forensic evidence led eventually to the two Libyans.

The person riding in Seat 33K that night was named George Waterson Williams, although sometimes his father, struggling for solace now, likes to believe that his son wasn't strapped into 33K when the flash came. He prefers to imagine his bachelor boy already out working the aisles, scouting for the beautiful women, lining up dates stateside.

Will justice ever come? Last week it seemed as if a beginning to a real end was at hand. The United States and Britain announced a sort of "take it or leave it" offer to the Libyan government, whereby the two alleged murderers would be tried in the Netherlands by Scottish judges. In effect, a Scottish court, with Scottish judges, would be transported to a neutral country. It was a proposal designed to meet conditions previously insisted on by Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. And, as part of the plan, as soon as Gadhafi had delivered the two suspects for trial to Netherlands authorities, the U.N. Security Council would suspend economic sanctions that were imposed on Libya in 1992 and 1993. Last week, a resolution to this effect was passed at the United Nations.

The breakthrough seemed nigh.

In coordinated announcements, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook and Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright said their proposal would not be subject to negotiation or modification. Their offer was intended to call Libya's bluff, and they said it was not to be regarded as giving ground to terrorists. Beforehand, in a conference call, Albright and White House national security adviser Samuel R. Berger briefed various family members. Response among some of the families was known to be very mixed. But according to George Williams and others, the overwhelming majority of families on the call were in favor of the proposal. In essence, it was as if they were now saying to themselves: It's an idea that can be lived with, lived with now. Because all these years had gone by and nothing had happened.

The proposal made the front pages and the nightly news reports, of course. This was early in the week. Libya appeared to be accepting. The government made a statement, a lot of which was a harangue. But by week's end, the equivocating, the stalling, had begun all over again, by Gadhafi himself. On Thursday, there was the Libyan leader on CNN, speaking from Tripoli, about how "negotiation must be done," about how further study would be required. There was a distinct sense of backing off from any seeming promise to turn over the suspects. Gadhafi was in a wheelchair, which raised its own intrigue.

To the families, it must have been just another kick in the stomach. You ask George Williams about last week, the sudden hope and the sudden sense of reversal, and he says: "We don't think Gadhafi's going to cough them up. He's going to equivocate and equivocate. I think we're trading camels with a camel trader, and we're not going to win."

So where does the matter stand now? State Department spokesmen and U.N. officials say they are unsure. "I wouldn't pretend to interpret what Libya's position is," Peter Burleigh, the deputy U.S. representative at the United Nations, was quoted as saying at the end of last week in the New York Times. "It is not clear to me that they have accepted the proposal." Two days ago, a State Department official told The Washington Post: "Our position is there's nothing to study. It's a yes or no." This official indicated that if Gadhafi refuses to comply, the refusal will pave the way for further and even more grievous U.N. economic sanctions, which could include a ban on the exporting of crude oil, Libya's lifeblood.

Two days ago the Senate passed a resolution saying that if the indicted suspects are not in the Netherlands by Oct. 29, the United Nations should impose a multilateral oil embargo.

But these are declarations and political statements. The truth is, there have been so many kicks in the stomach over the years -- to all the families. Here is one that hits just to George Williams and his spouse. The remains of their son are in the Church of the Resurrection cemetery, which is a little Episcopal-owned graveyard near the Williams home in Joppatowne, which is a middle-class working community about 15 miles north of Baltimore. Two months ago, the monument that marks Geordie's grave was vandalized. A 19-year-old was charged. Nobody really knows why the kid did it.

"I wasn't around," says Williams. "If I'd caught him when it happened, I'd have probably snapped the bastard's neck."

But then a warrior softens. "And how would that have brought my son back?"

There have been plenty of times over this last decade when George Williams would have wished for nothing more on Earth than for one chance to take out, and take out personally, Moammar Gadhafi. All the better if he could do it with his bare hands. "Yeah, that would do my heart good, personally," he says. "I still want it sometimes. Yeah, a lot. Just him. Just me and him. But I'm torn. If I did that, if I were somehow able to murder him, would I ever get to see my son again?"

You mean in Heaven?

He nods. Then, "You know, something like this happens, you consider suicide." A pause. "It's against my religion, suicide. Killing someone for vengeance is against my religion, too. You see, I have this fervent belief I'll see my son again. I know I will. Nothing will interfere with that."


Sorrow has a curious habit of working its own changes and surprises -- sometimes in spite of oneself. In a way, this is really a piece about the slow garnering of wisdom. George Williams, by instinct and predilection, is a warrior. He is someone who could accurately be described as a conservative American. He's long been in favor of the right to have guns. He's against abortion. He's against ordination of gays in his church.

And yet when you encounter him now, he doesn't seem as much a warrior as a man in transition. Or maybe another way to think about it is that he seems fully capable of swinging between his polarities. At 67, George Williams is a work in progress.

He appears to have grown into his role as a leader and spokesman. Leading and speaking and working against state-sponsored terrorism are a means of coping. In a way, he seems emblematic and representative of the victims' group he heads -- and, in a smaller sense, of the country he is a citizen of. He's plainly had to change how he thinks about some things, in the face of severe blows. He might not put it this way himself, but he seems someone who is now trying to take the best one can hope for in a muddy world. There is nothing in the least weak about this. There is something courageous, admirable, realistic in it.

In a perfect world, Libya long ago would have handed over its alleged murderers, and the case would be done. But the world isn't perfect, it often isn't just.

The group Williams is head of, VPAF103, is by far the largest victim-family organization connected with the bombing. It is, says Williams, a proactive group whose members decline to sit around and feel sorry for themselves. There are quarterly meetings and membership dues and newsletters. According to Williams, VPAF103 represents about 160 of the 189 Americans who died at Lockerbie.

Williams says now that his group was "totally opposed" when the neutral-country idea first came up four years ago, but that the group has changed. Why? Maybe the word "realism" applies.

The idea of a trial in a neutral country had been put forth in 1994 by Gadhafi himself. Libya has always argued that the two suspects could never receive a fair trial in the United States or the United Kingdom. So Libya suggested the idea of a trial under Scottish law in a neutral country, and the idea was endorsed by the Arab League as well as other world organizations.

On the other hand, America and Britain insisted for years that Libya had no choice but to hand over the pair for trial either here or in Scotland. So the matter dragged. No breakthrough ever came. Meanwhile the trail of evidence against the suspects was said to be growing cold, the U.N. economic sanctions weakening.

Then last week, this British-American plan, which is very similar to what Gadhafi suggested four years ago.

Says Williams: "If Madeleine Albright and Bill Clinton don't pinch [Gadhafi] . . . real quick, we'll be down on Capitol Hill en masse. Our group will go across the thresholds of 100 senators. We'll be pushing and screaming. We'll hit every member of Congress who's up for reelection."

There are some connected with this case who feel Tripoli itself should be bombed, even leveled. They want that kind of Old Testament vengeance. But George Williams isn't among them. Let vengeance be left to the vengeful, he says.

A visitor had asked him bluntly if there was a time when he had ever wanted to take out all of Tripoli. And he had answered immediately: "No. No. Other innocent people would get killed." Then he had come very, very close. "I don't want to create other people like me." His voice didn't quite break.

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