Written by Phil Furey
SINCE: THE BOMBING OF PAN AM FLIGHT 103 was born first as a short film on a remarkable woman, the Montauk-based artist Suse Lowenstein, whose harrowing work Dark Elegy freezes in time the moment that she – and nearly 80 other women – first heard of their loved ones’ perishing in the bombing of a trans-Atlantic flight in 1988, over the town of Lockerbie, Scotland. The takedown of Pan Am Flight 103 on December 21, 1988, a result of a bomb planted by Libya, marked the first major terrorist attack against the west, years before Oklahoma City, 9/11, or the London transit bombings, just to name a few. It seems there are too many of these attacks to keep track of, which brought me as the filmmaker to ask “what is it like to be one of the growing number of people affected by terrorism, long-term?” Unfortunately, our present media conglomerate system only focuses on the immediate aftermath of these attacks. We see the pretty, sorrowful pictures: flowers resting atop gravestones, candlelight vigils, and when we do revisit the families of the victims, it is usually framed in a cliched and formulaic portrait, perfect for the cameras, with the question of “how does it feel” frequently deployed. And then we pack it away in a tidy box, to be placed back on the shelf and only to be opened for the next landmark anniversary. I detest this one-dimensional approach to telling the story of the people affected by terrorism, so I wanted to make sure that whomever views this film received an intimate and accurate portrait of the pain and anger that remains in a family years – even decades – after such a callous act of mass murder. But in my interviews with Suse, whose 21-year old son Alexander was one of several Syracuse University students onboard Flight 103, I realized that this story was larger than any one victim, and so I set out to tell as much of the saga as I could, within the parameters of a feature film. So I profiled more families, over the course of ten years, to document the long-term effects of this brutal loss, and to see the markedly different pathways this crime had on a large group of people – many of whom had nothing in common except a ticket aboard an ill-fated flight.
That, and I found the larger story of the bombing of Flight 103 to be a shocking tale that had not yet been effectively told to the public. Here was the first major attack on the United States and the United Kingdom, on so many unprecedented levels, yet I, as a student in America in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, had never heard of it. 270 people from 22 nations murdered in an abhorrent and cowardly act of war. Bodies and body parts scattered around a sleepy Scottish border town, where 11 residents died as a result of falling pieces of aircraft; a truly hellish landscape that would forever change the town of Lockerbie. It was an attack on an iconic symbol of America, Pan Am Airlines, which was designed to strike fear in the hearts of US citizens. This crime sparked a worldwide hunt for the perpetrators, involving a groundbreaking investigation which pooled together the resources of seven nations determined to find out who was responsible, and bring those parties to justice. Everything about Pan Am Flight 103 was a “first” for this world – from the massive crime scene of nearly 1000 square miles across Scotland and England – the largest crime scene even to this day – to the unusual legal arrangement that came to a head with a trial in a Scottish Court located in a neutral country, resulting in a guilty verdict for a Libyan spy who was found guilty of planting the bomb in a Samsonite suitcase and routing it to the doomed 747 airliner.
Meanwhile, the bombing represented the first time that the United States government was forced to deal with a massive group of grieving, outraged people, all demanding answers, all at once. Flight 103 was bombed during the last 30 days of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, effectively causing no president to truly “own” the disaster. It was an embarrassing security lapse of the federal government, which did not want to act to fix the obvious holes in airline safety. With no system in place to support victims of a mass casualty event, the Flight 103 families were forced to fend for themselves against an ailing airline anticipating a class action lawsuit, and looking out for its bottom line, not for the well-being of its passengers who had died as a partial result of its corporate malfeasance. Everything in the early days was an insult, particularly the way the remains of their loved ones returned to America – forklifted off the back of a spraypainted truck at the livestock quarantine section of JFK airport. This government inaction was a call to action to the victim families, who weaponized their anger and became shrewd media operatives who fought for changes to airline security and brought down Pan Am. They worked closely with the FBI to develop a program that assists victims of crime, so that whenever a terrorist attack occurs, the victims are not abandoned.
With the conviction of the Libyan spy, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, in 2001, and acceptance of responsibility from Libya’s tyrannical dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, reparations totaling $2.7 billion dollars – $10 million per victim – were made to the families, and Libya was able to reopen its doors for business with the repeal of sanctions put in place after the bombing. Libya then utilized its oil wealth to bully Scotland into releasing Megrahi early, on “compassionate” grounds in 2009, as he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer and was allegedly close to death. Thinking they were done with a long string of insults, the families watched in horror as the man who murdered their kin was released to die surrounded by his family in Libya. To make matters worse, he ended up surviving for three years, and an extensive investigation journalistic investigation revealed that Gaddafi was going to cancel a pending oil drilling contract with Britain’s largest publicly held company, BP, if the prisoner was not released. In the end, oil proved to be worth more than the lives of innocent people. Gaddafi ended up receiving justice in the end, delivered at the hands of his people, who ousted him from power and murdered him in 2011, amidst the backdrop of the Arab Spring. For the families, however, this was too little too late. The damage of his reign had already been done.
Yet through all the ugliness that emerged from this heartbreaking story, I was buoyed by the touching stories of the human connections formed between the victim families and the people of Lockerbie, who opened their homes and their hearts to strangers from distant lands who were looking for answers that might fill the gaps of their child’s or parent’s or spouse’s final moments. A farmer who took parents to the place in his field where he found their children. The women of the Lockerbie who came together and lovingly washed and ironed clothes of the victims and painstakingly matched them to the right families. Or the establishment of a scholarship program between Lockerbie and Syracuse University, in the hopes that this terrible crime not be forgotten.
Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it. Sadly, as far as younger generations are concerned, we have forgotten this terrible crime. We ought to teach it in our classrooms because it could have been us on that plane, or on that double decker bus, or in that federal building in Oklahoma, or in a train in Madrid, at a concert in Paris, at a hotel in Mumbai. Terrorism is as random as it is inhumane, and we never know when – or who – it will strike next. Only if we learn from its brutal history can we have a chance at preventing it from dictating our future.
Run Time: 84 Minutes