Belief, disbelief and beyond belief

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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.