Finding the truth won’t bring a loved one back, but sometimes, it’s the last gift you can give to those you’ve lost.
Terrorism is murder, plain and simple. It’s the willful killing of other human beings to make some sort of a point or to frighten peoples or nations. All of it is horrific, but at its worse, it’s the slaughter of the innocent, who either have no culpability in the terrorists’ complaints, or have a culpability that only exists within twisted fantasies of victimhood.
Such was the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, sent crashing by a terrorist explosive onto Lockerbie, Scotland, on Dec. 21, 1988, killing all 243 passengers and 16 crew on board, along with 11 more people on the ground.
Arrest warrants were ultimately issued for two Libyan nationals. Only one, Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, was convicted. In 2009, in a misguided act it called compassion, the Scottish government released him from a life sentence to return to Libya to a hero’s welcome from the Gaddafi regime. Allegedly he had only months to live from prostate cancer. In actuality, he lived until 2012.
Each of the Lockerbie-bombing victims, as with every other victim of (mostly Islamic) terrorism, left a terrible hole in the world. For “Frontline” documentarian Ken Dornstein, that hole was shaped like his older brother, David, who was 25 at the time he died in fear and flame.
In “My Brother’s Bomber,” which launches the new season of PBS’ “Frontline” — airing Tuesdays, Sept. 29, Oct. 6 and Oct. 13 — Dornstein sets out on a personal quest to retrace the steps of the investigation and follow new avenues himself, in hopes of finally learning the truth about the plot that ended so many lives.
At the Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour in Beverly Hills, California, Dornstein spoke of trying to stitch together fragments of his brother’s life, saying, “The question wasn’t why David Dornstein mattered. The question was, David Dornstein mattered to me.
“I feel like it was a story that told me how to be in it.”
Said “Frontline” executive producer Raney Aronson, “His reporting has spanned decades, five presidents who have sworn to find justice in this case, but, for one reason or another, have come up short. It’s important to remember that this was the biggest terrorist act against American civilians before 9/11. What Ken found is remarkable, surprising in its scope and ambition.
“It’s an edge-of-our-seat international investigation. Someone called Ken ‘obsessive,’ but I would call this investigative journalism at its best.”
The fall of dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 changed things on the ground in Libya, enough for Dorstein to begin his journey. But as for closure, he said, “I’m gonna hold off on the closure question because we’re very much finishing the reporting, finishing the filming.
“But I’d say, I started with questions that were significant enough to get me to go over the Tunisian border into Libya, and I don’t have those questions anymore.”
Was Dornstein seeking some sort of vengeance?
“In terms of the satisfaction of seeing any of these people dead or suffer,” Dornstein said, “I mean, there’s the death of Gaddafi himself. I don’t know if anybody saw that. It was filmed on a camera phone. It was a gruesome, bloody death, a violent end for a man who conducted a violent regime — some would say fitting.
“There actually was a British tabloid that ran a picture of his bloodied head from the death video, and they had a huge banner headline on it that said, ‘That’s for Lockerbie.’ And, to the extent that the tabloid-headline writers are trying to tap into the psyche, maybe, or some kind of zeitgeist, that maybe they think a Lockerbie victim might want to have.
“I never had any particular bloodlust for him or the others involved. My drive, my passion, is for a true and satisfying account that has enough detail in it to answer any questions. What happens to the people? It’s the job of the FBI and the Justice Department to administer justice. It’s not the job of a filmmaker.
“Once I found the level of specificity of answers that I was looking for, I would turn it over to other people in terms of handing out justice. … The ‘That’s for Lockerbie’ sentiment is sentiment of vengeance. What are people interested in when they’re interested in revenge?”
While he doesn’t consider himself as someone seeking vengeance, Dornstein cited studies that show that the desire for revenge isn’t as much about making perpetrators suffer than it is about sending a message that you can’t just get away with murder.
“My impulse,” he said, “is I’d like to deliver the message that they were real people on the other end of the bomb that you somehow built or infiltrated through the luggage system onto the plane — and I’m one of them. It altered the course of my life, and I want you to know that there were consequences for that. Once I’ve delivered a messge like that, I turn it over to others.”
For my part, I only wish the sort of people that put bombs on planes cared at all that they were killing other human beings, but I’m not convinced they do. They have a goal in mind, and dead humans are merely collateral damage along the way to that goal. In their minds, there are no innocent victims and no noncombatants. We spend an enormous amount of time worrying about the psychological impulses of terrorists but not nearly enough thinking about the ripple effect of their atrocities.
I remember the terrorist attacks at the Munich Olympics, the Achille Lauro, the USS Cole, the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, Lockerbie, the Oklahoma City bombing, let alone 9/11 and the Boston Marathon, and that’s just the ones off the top of my head without Googling.
For every Ken Dornstein, there are untold thousands of people with human-shaped holes in their hearts and lives, seeking answers. I’ve seen the first hour of “My Brother’s Bomber,” and it’s terrifying and compelling. I can’t wait to see the rest, although I don’t hold out much hope that there will be any justice in this world.
Justice may have to wait for the next world, echoing into Eternity.
Image: Courtesy Frontline