It was 1988, four days before Christmas. A Pan American jumbo jet, "Maid of the Seas," took off from Heathrow Airport in London. The plane was bound for New York City. There were 259 people on board. Most were Americans.
I bet they were excited, don't you? I bet they were excited about seeing New York at Christmas time, even the ones who were natives of that city. You can imagine what kinds of things they were talking about. Shopping that had been done and shopping yet to be done. The business that had just been completed in London, or the business that was awaiting them stateside. Many probably spoke of family gatherings that awaited them over the next few days - or perhaps reuniting with children and other relatives.
They were normal people with the same likes and dislikes, hopes and fears, dreams and ambitions that we all have.
But none of them got to realize those hopes and dreams, because 40 minutes after their plane took off, it disappeared from air traffic control radar screens. A bomb exploded while the plane was over Lockerbie, Scotland. All souls onboard were killed instantly and debris from the plane was spread over 800 miles of Scottish countryside.
Burning debris from the aircraft landed on houses in Lockerbie, killing 11 more people on the ground.
It was about 1 a.m. in Atlanta when the explosion occurred. The next morning I remember waking up and turning on the morning news. The Lockerbie disaster, as the incident was being called, dominated the broadcasts on all the networks. I drove to Lenox Square that morning to finish my Christmas shopping - or maybe to get started - and kept the radio tuned to WSB. Little by little the details came in about the who, what, when, where and why of the catastrophe.
There were some prominent people among the passengers killed in the Lockerbie explosion. Remember Larry Tate, boss of Samantha's husband Darren on "Bewitched?" The actor that played Larry Tate was named David White. His 33-year-old son, Jonathan was aboard. There were also diplomats, songwriters and musicians.
At least 50 college students, including 35 from Syracuse University, were on the Pan Am flight - returning home after spending a semester studying abroad. Imagine how eager their families were to welcome them home - and imagine how they felt when they woke up to the news that their loved ones' flight had gone down - or, rather, blown up in midair.
Five of the passengers worked for the CIA.
But each of the passengers and crew - as well as each of the 11 fatalities on the ground - had friends and family and loved ones and a reason to live. None deserved to have their lives snatched from them by evil men seeking their own purpose.
It took a long time to get to the bottom of the Lockerbie murders. Several groups were quick to claim responsibility. One group claimed that the destruction of Pan Am 103 was in retaliation for an Iranian flight that the US military had mistakenly shot down the previous summer. Another anonymous caller claimed it was the beginning of a "Christmas jihad." Another claimed it was the work of Mossad, Israel's answer to the CIA.
After years of investigation by a worldwide network of agencies a Libyan, Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, was found guilty of 260 counts of murder for his involvement in the bombing of Pan American Flight 103. 260 counts of murder. 260 innocent lives lost.
No, wait. They weren't lost. They were taken.
Hate. Pure and simple hate for Western culture, the Judeo-Christian heritage and everything different from his beliefs.
Last week the government of Scotland released this mass murderer - the man who was convicted of actually planting the bomb on the Pan Am aircraft - for "humanitarian reasons." He is suffering from terminal prostate cancer, bless his heart, so the Scottish government sent him home to "die in peace."
And when he returned to Libya Thursday he was greeted with a hero's welcome. Imagine Charles Lindbergh's ticker tape parade in New York after he returned from his solo flight across the Atlantic. Imagine Neil Armstrong's reception after he walked on the moon. Heck, imagine the parade down Peachtree Street the Braves got after winning the 1995 World Series.
Now imagine mass murderer Abdel Baset al-Megrahi stepping off a plane in Tripoli, a free man, and being greeted by thousands of his fellow countrymen, waving flags and honking car horns.
The British government expressed outrage. FBI director Robert Mueller pointed out that the murderer had served less than 14 days per victim.
And most of us are a lot more interested in who is going to win the next big television reality show than in expressing outrage that our enemies are giving a hero's welcome to a returning war hero.
Make no mistake about it. Our nation still has enemies and they are still plotting to rain death and destruction upon us.
I pray that we aren't so caught up in bickering among ourselves that we forget to be vigilant. And I thank the men and women who work in silence and anonymity each and every day to keep us safe.
Abdel Baset al-Megrahi