If there is one community on this planet that deserves an eternal exemption from the international spotlight, it is Lockerbie, Scotland.

The harsh glare has returned, however, in recent weeks after the Scottish government’s ludicrous decision — by Justice Minister Kenny McCaskill — to free Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, the Libyan agent convicted in the Pam Am Flight 103 bombing in the skies above Lockerbie in 1988.

Megrahi was the only person convicted in the attack, which killed 270 people, 180 of whom were American. Thirty-five were students at Syracuse University, which I attended, heading home from England for the holidays, after spending a semester abroad.

Eleven of the 4,000 residents of the pastoral farming village of Lockerbie died on the ground.

The release of Megrahi is a disgrace. Prior to 9/11, Pan Am Flight 103 was the most lethal terrorist attack on American civilians. His freedom is the rough equivalent of granting clemency to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, of waterboarding fame. That it was given on “compassionate” grounds because of cancer only mocks the heartbreak Megrahi and his co-conspirators, whoever they are, caused to hundreds of families.

There is speculation about other reasons Megrahi was released. The rumor mills are churning with tales of rich Libya’s petroleum fields buying weak bureaucrats in the United Kingdom, which if true, would mean, cynically, even terrorism can be tolerated — for the right price.

Yet as allegations of political backstabbing and diplomatic double-dealing fly through the global press, Lockerbie rarely gets the attention it deserves, except as a pushpin on a map that illustrates that here is where a terrible thing happened.

Loccardians, as the people of Lockerbie are called, are forever stuck by that pin, though their community is hundreds of years old. Since the bombing, a special relationship between Lockerbie and Syracuse University was forged, which has allowed students from both to visit and study in the other.

I was one of those. I went to Lockerbie in 2002 to write about its people and history, as if the terrible events of Dec. 23, 1988 never occurred.

What I found was a community that is the very definition of resilience.

For centuries, the route north into Scotland sent travelers through the Lockerbie area. The region is blessed with cooperative topography, making it the route historically taken by armies, merchants, traders and tourists on the way to the Highlands.

With its red-brick downtown and towering churches, Lockerbie is similar to many towns in Maine.

The original federal highway, U.S. Route 1, winds its way up the Maine coast as the central artery to dozens of communities. The road brings trade and tourists, and it’s been historically feared that if a larger highway were built parallel to it, the lifeblood it currently transports would dry up.

This happened to Lockerbie.

When the first roads were built connecting England and Scotland, the main highway cut right through the Lockerbie downtown. In 1952, Reverend J.C. Steen describes hundreds of buses and cars bustling through both day and night.

“With the roads and road traffic came a new kind of life to Lockerbie; day and night the main street roared with traffic,” he wrote. “In 1950, Lockerbie House added 20 bedrooms for bus-touring passengers; the new Rex Café at Station Square may have twenty bus loads at a time, with hundreds crowding in for lunch or tea; the regular London buses stop at the Crown. Hotels are full up on most nights with passing motorists, private houses and hostels cater for long-distance truck drivers, and with travelers loitering before continuing their journey, shops reap new wealth.”

Rev. Steen also issued this caveat. “Plans are already passed to build a by-pass of Lockerbie for the main road. Many welcome this because it may make the streets safer and the nights quieter; others feel that it will be a death blow to the town’s prosperity, robbing it through trade which has been bringing as much as £250,000 a year to the hotels, tea-rooms, and shops of Lockerbie.”

Then came the A74 motorway, in the late 1950s and then, in the 1990s, it was widened into the bustling six-lane M74, from Glasgow to Carlisle. The M74 is a short walk from downtown, and pedestrians can walk over the busy highway on a concrete catwalk.

Historians now use these motorways as landmarks to describe the ancient trails first blazed by the Roman legions through southern Scotland. Burnswark, a sloping plateau minutes from town, has yielded archaeological evidence of not only the Romans, but also of settlements existing hundreds of years before the empire used southern Scotland as a military training ground.

Roman forts, and fortlets, also dot the countryside around Lockerbie. Most notable is Birrens, or Blatobulgium in Latin, a marching fort dating to 80 A.D. and the first Roman incursion into Scotland.

The turbulent times following the Roman occupations cost Scotland much of its written history. Endless conflicts between the earthy Scots and their imperial British neighbors saw historical records destroyed as churches, abbeys, and chapels fell to conquering armies who cared little about the past.

What remained were the stories passed down between generations, coupled with archaeological investigations into sites long covered by barley fields and grazing land. The story of Lockerbie, or whatever it was then called, is an amalgam of what is known and unknown, with the blanks filled with supposition, research, and, in the words of a noted town historian, “a bit of guesswork.”

It could be uncertainty about the past that led to apathy among Loccardians. In 1999, a New Year’s Eve celebration was cancelled because of little interest. Those who worked for years to see a millennium celebration come together pulled together resources for just one event, a historical display at the town’s ice rink, to mark the worldwide millennial celebration.

Given the failures of the other events, the hopes for the display were dismal. But something special happened. When it opened, instead of apathy, event organizers found insatiable curiosity.

The display, set out in a linear format that led visitors through history from Roman through modern times, inspired the community. Locals unearthed and donated long forgotten artifacts found in bottom drawers, ancient scrapbooks, and dusty attic boxes.

Old men spent hours pouring over the old editions of the Annandale Herald. On weekday afternoons, professional people from the town took their lunch at the rink.

Beyond anyone’s expectations the display became a town favorite during its one-month tenure. “In the end,” event co-chairman Anne Hills said, “no one wanted us to take it down.”

In a town made famous by tragedy, it’s understandable why its people might embrace apathy to bury past horrors. But the turnout at the historical display indicated something else: a desire to change the community’s identity away from a place of somber memories. By embracing the past, Lockerbie hoped to project a brighter future in a place, as some locals say, “where nothing ever happens.”

The richness of Lockerbie’s culture and history are unfairly characterized by the horrific events of one December evening in 1988. So much has happened in the area that’s been ignored, forgotten, or taken for granted because Pan Am Flight 103 dominates all.

These wounds have been re-opened by the release of Megrahi, his jubilant return to Libya, and the worldwide rebuke and hard questions that have followed. Lockerbie has again become the center of attention, not for what it is, but for what was thrust upon them.

When in reality, it is so much more.

Anthony Ronzio is the editorial page editor of the Sun Journal, a graduate of Syracuse University, and a contributor to “Looking for Lockerbie,” a book of essays and photographs about the village, published in 2008. E-mail [email protected], or call 1-800-782-0759, ext. 2285.


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