Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, on Dec. 21, 1988. This month I officiated at a funeral for one of its victims.
His name was Ben Bernstein, age 89. His daughter Judith and her husband, Gary, were among the hundreds of passengers on board that jumbo jet. They were gifted, handsome young people, hugely successful in their careers, on assignment in London for a set of work projects. Just recently married, they were traveling home for the holidays, like so many others on that flight.
It promised to be the best of times, a festive season of light and hope, when we are reunited with family and friends. But the terrorists had a different agenda in mind. Managing somehow to maneuver past airport and airline security, the killers planted a massive bomb which ripped away not only the side of that airship, but lives from loved ones.
For those completely innocent passengers, and the equally innocent Scots crushed by that exploding, flailing airplane, the "reunion" that holiday season turned out to be held, not around a dinner table, but in a church or synagogue graveyard.
Ben and his wife Pauline never recovered. How could they? Both were just settling into their twilight years. It should have been a time to look back in fulfillment, to revel in their children and the promises of their lives. That vacation should have been one of unalloyed joy.
Instead, a mother and father, like hundreds, thousands of other family kin, had their lives violated. In this particular instance, two aged parents had to set about, not making a "welcome home" party, but claiming the remains of their children, choosing proper burial sites, trying to reconcile themselves to an unspeakable horror.
Reconciliation never came. Pauline and Ben got on with their lives, to be sure. They continued to greet family and longtime neighbors, kept up with community events, fulfilled their responsibilities to each other. But the passion for living was gone, forever.
For those parents, no doubt for all the kin of the victims on board and the ground that cold December day, W.H. Auden had captured the moment, when he wrote his "Song: Stop All the Clocks":
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come . . .
The stars are not wanted now; put out everyone,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the woods:
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
As we escorted Ben's coffin to its home at a small, lovely cemetery in St. Paul, next to where his wife was buried 16 months ago, it was impossible not to focus on the adjoining tombstone. It bears the names of his daughter and son-in-law, with the words:
"Victims of the Lockerbie Airship Disaster."
Perhaps that phrase ought to be inscribed on Ben and Pauline's grave markers, too. They, too, are victims. So are the surviving family members of every women, man and child murdered that day.
By extension, so are we, the rest of us who routinely go about our lives. We have also been victimized, but not so much by that awful bombing as by our unwillingness, or inability, both as a nation and world community, to see justice done. The killers still go free, the nations that harbored them are still unpunished.
Until that changes, Pan Am Flight 103 will haunt our days and besmirch our civilization.
- Barry D. Cytron is rabbi of Adath Jeshurun Congregation, Minnetonka.