Boris Johnson and I agree; we often do…

07Mar11

Police officers at the site of the Lockerbie crash
270 people were killed when Pan Am flight 103 from London to New York was blown up over Lockerbie Photo: AFP
Boris Johnson
By Boris Johnson 6:19AM GMT 07 Mar 2011
At 7.01pm on Wednesday, December 21 1988, an air traffic controller by the name of Alan Topp noticed something funny about the “squawk” sign from Pan Am flight 103 to JFK. The signal had disappeared, to be replaced by four smaller pulses that soon vanished from his screen. He was watching one of the most sadistic acts of state terror ever unleashed. Think of a two-minute silence, how slowly it seems to pass. That was the time that elapsed between the explosion in the cargo hold, at 31,000 feet, and the fireball that engulfed the Scottish town of Lockerbie, murdering 11 inhabitants.

First, the bomb punched a hole 20 inches wide in the left-hand side of the fuselage, just below the P in Pan Am. Shock waves rebounded from the skin of the hull, jolting passengers in their seats. Within seconds, the front of the Jumbo – cockpit and first-class lounge – had begun to break away. The third engine snapped off. As the disintegrating plane began to plunge, tornado-force winds roared through the cabin, ripping the clothes off people and hurling the cabin crew to the back. The human beings began to black out in the rarefied air of the troposphere. As the gases expanded fourfold in their bodies, their lungs swelled and collapsed; and yet forensic investigators believe that of the 270 victims of Lockerbie, 147 were alive and perhaps even conscious – revived by the oxygen-rich lower air – when they hit the ground. One man was found with his hand clutching the grass.

Think of the last two minutes of those innocent people – most of them returning home for Christmas – when you contemplate what is happening in Libya, where the authorities finally admitted responsibility for Lockerbie in 2003. Every instinct tells us that Gaddafi has had it. He has lost great tracts of the country, including the vital oil-producing facilities at Benghazi. His state TV boasts of recapturing towns that he palpably does not control, and even in his stronghold of Tripoli his face has been ripped from the hoardings and we hear of long bursts of unexplained machine-gun fire.

Common sense surely says that he cannot recover now, not after shooting and bombing his own people, not after sowing so much hatred and lust for revenge. He is finished, isn’t he? Well, I am almost certain he is; but three weeks after the revolt began, it is time to ask ourselves – what happens if we are wrong? What if Gaddafi hangs on by his bloodstained fingertips? What can we do?

It is some days since Lord Owen captured our imagination with his call for a “no-fly zone”. As time trickles by and the casualties mount, it is frankly more likely that Col Gaddafi’s planes will be immobilised by snow or volcanic ash than by Western firepower. The US defence secretary has all but ruled it out, and one can see the difficulties. A no-fly zone is not a case of magically jamming the air traffic control systems. It involves a colossal investment of time and money, by forces already heavily committed in Iraq and Afghanistan, to direct extreme violence at Libyan air force facilities. It is a substantial military intervention; it would almost certainly involve civilian casualties. It would have to be enforced by the Americans, and whatever some Libyan rebels may be saying, it is far from clear that the people of that country want to see their uprising turned into a foreign-backed coup.

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