Justice and the death of Gaddafi

The colonel's killers took the law into their own hands. Does this matter?

Gaddafi was lynched. At least, that's what appears to have happened. One moment he was being hauled, very much alive, from the tunnel in which he had taken refuge. On our next sight of him, shot, beaten and dragged through the streets, he very much wasn't. Whether he died from a bullet to the head or the stomach, on the bonnet of a jeep or in an ambulance, his fate was sealed the moment he was apprehended. No legal process, however truncated, preceded his peremptory dispatch; and yet yesterday a man who claimed to have fired the shot that terminated the Colonel's earthly existence was openly bragging about it to the TV cameras. Clearly he did not fear standing trial for murder.

To cover themselves, the interim Libyan government has put out a story about Gaddafi dying during a shoot-out. And that is probably the end that the toppled dictator himself would have chosen, or at least what he would have claimed to want. A trial, with all the grandstanding possibilities and opportunities to embarrass western leaders it would have afforded him, would have been even more Gaddafi's style. His actual death was neither heroic nor theatrical: cornered, he was, it seems, begging for his life. But the mob was in no mood for mercy.

I'm not sentimental about these events. Gaddafi was a dreadful man and the world is a better place without him. And it is perhaps fitting that his death differed little, in its essentials, from that meted out to countless others on both sides of Libya's civil war, others without the blood of thousands on their hands, others whose mangled corpses were never shown on TV or, if they have been, were merely anonymous visual statistics. Gaddafi's death was not, like Osama Bin Laden's, the result of a planned and targeted operation. It was, it appears, entirely spontaneous: popular justice at its roughest and readiest. Such things happen in the heat of battle, or when the normal mechanisms of law and order are not functioning.

Violent death can even provide a catharsis. Certainly it looked that way last night, although the manner of Gaddifi's death evoked neither pity nor terror among ordinary Libyans, but rather waves of relief and joy. For those who suffered under Gaddafi's rule, this is understandable. And joy, like any strong emotion, can be contagious. Yet there's something unseemly about scenes of jubilation over the bloody corpse of anyone, even a dictator. They do not reveal the best of humanity. They evoke rather the atavistic bloodlust of the Roman arena or, in our own history, the excitement of the crowds who gathered at Tyburn to watch traitors being hanged, drawn and quartered.

It's therefore a bit depressing to see the lack of nuance in the international response to yesterday's events either in the media, which has crowed over Gaddafi's corpse, or in official reactions, which have welcomed the dictator's removal without troubling too much about legal niceties. There has been much use of euphemisms. Is it that western governments do not expect of Middle Eastern countries the same standards that presumably they would apply to their own? Even the Vatican seemed pleased, saying that his demise "marks the end of a much too long and tragic phase of a brutal struggle to bring down a harsh and oppressive regime." While hoping that the Libyan people "might be spared further violence due to a spirit of revenge", there was little hint of regret for the nature of the "dramatic event", or the fact that it deprives both Libya and the world of the spectacle of formal justice taking its course.

But however emotionally satisfying, mob justice is no substitute for the real thing. Gaddafi's lynching means that many secrets have died with him and will never be told. The manner of his death also risks making a martyr of him, or, worse, nurturing a desire among his remaining supporters to avenge him. Even if there are no such consequences, the new Libya is somehow diminished by the casual eradication of the embodiment of the old.

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle