The next time you hear some politician wax poetic about the incomparable, historic friendship between the United States and Great Britain, remember Abdel Baset al-Megrahi.

Al-Megrahi is a former Libyan intelligence agent, a relative of murderous dictator Moammar Gadhafi and the only person ever convicted for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. That bombing wasn't just some random act of terrorist violence. It was a deliberate attack on an American airliner headed to an American destination, loaded with American passengers.

Before the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pa., there was Lockerbie. Of the 259 passengers and crew on Flight 103, 180 were American. Prior to 9/11, Lockerbie was the site of the deadliest terrorist attack against American civilians.

Yet Lockerbie itself is an accident of history. The detonator on the explosive device was rigged to go off at high altitude over the Atlantic Ocean, where evidence of the bomb and its origins would be nearly impossible to find. It went off prematurely, as the 747 was over Scotland after taking off from London's Heathrow Airport.

Because of that accident, Scotland claimed jurisdiction for this crime against the United States, a claim the Clinton administration accepted. And intricate diplomatic negotiations led to al-Megrahi's trial, 11 years after the crime, by a special panel of Scottish judges at a specially constructed court at a former U.S. Air Force base in the Netherlands.

After 36 weeks of testimony, the judges found al-Megrahi guilty of 270 counts of murder — the 259 passengers and crew aboard Flight 103 and 11 people on the ground. They gave him a sentence of no less than 27 years, or about five weeks for every life taken. American officials and the families of the victims were assured then, in 2001, that al-Megrahi would serve every day.

Last week, after only eight years, Scottish Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill put al-Megrahi on a plane back to Libya, where he was the toast of Tripoli, treated to a hero's welcome with Gadhafi's son Saif at his side.

Why? Not, MacAskill said, because of uncertainty about al-Megrahi's guilt, though plenty of alternative theories exist about the downing of Flight 103. Not because al-Megrahi had demonstrated immense remorse. MacAskill acknowledged that he hadn't shown any at all.

No, al-Megrahi had been diagnosed with an advanced, terminal case of prostate cancer — a diagnosis that is now in some doubt. And with the acquiescence — at minimum — of the government of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, MacAskill thought it would be compassionate to allow him to spend his purported final months at home with family and friends.

That's the official version anyway, as British oil companies reap the benefits of a sudden warming in relations. "Perhaps now, with the final resolution of the Lockerbie affair, as far as the Libyans are concerned, maybe they'll move a bit more swiftly," the New York Times quoted Lord Trefgarne, chairman of the Libyan British Business Council.

More swiftly indeed, old chap.

Setting al-Megrahi free was one way to show compassion. Another would have been to give him the medical care he needed — in prison.

But the most important display of compassion should have been to the family and friends of the 270 victims, whose tenuous claim to justice was the knowledge that this smirking, unrepentant thug was not free. That's the kind of compassion you'd expect from an incomparable, historic friend.

E-mail Jonathan Gurwitz at