It is his fault. When his people rose up, he turned his armies on them; when they fought back, he slaughtered them. He laid siege to Benghazi, and promised a massacre. He was the one who seized power, who oppressed, repressed, tortured, humiliated, and offended. And yet.
I was ecstatic over Egypt’s revolution, thrilled by Tunisia’s, and still hurt to see what’s happening in Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria. As much as I was concerned by the far more violent turn Libya’s revolution took, I wanted Qaddafi gone. And now he is gone. But I sense in his rise, fall, and expiration a moral lesson we seem uninterested in.
He vowed to hunt down his people like rats, street-by-street and house-by-house. In the end, they hunted him down, chasing him from his palaces and attacking him in his own gaudy vanity projects. He made his last stand near the buildings he had lavished Sirte with. He who accused al-Qaeda of being behind Libya’s revolution ended his life releasing audiotapes only the Syrian government dared share.
What do we learn from that?
He was apparently found in a drainage pipe in Sirte, his hometown; ending where he began, under the ground not far from where he came into the world. Could he have imagined this ending, years back, after he overthrew Libya’s soft monarchy and challenged the world? Did he expect, as he funded so much of the African Union, that his life would end with him shoved to the ground by fighters from Misrata?
We’re not sure exactly what happened; it seems, as of now, that he was shot while trying to escape, quickly captured, and died of his wounds. Those who seized him did take him to an ambulance, but we’re not sure if he was tortured, mistreated, left to die—the details may or may not come out. But considering how much harm and evil he caused, it is little surprise the nation celebrates his expiration. So why should it matter how he died?
As vile as bin Laden and Qaddafi were, they should have been tried. Perhaps that was impossible. Perhaps we will never really know. And perhaps this is a moral conceit that is ultimately irrelevant—would postwar Europe have been very different had Hitler gone on trial? But Hitler had taken his own life, and with it the Nazi cause. His few remaining diehard loyalists could not claim he was mistreated.
Seeing a wounded, bloodied Qaddafi jeered at and propped up on a pickup truck, then stumbling and terrified, I saw a human [warning: graphic video here]. The myth of the dictator had come spectacularly undone. His claim to power and his arrogant prestige had deserted him, and he was in the end a pathetic, hideous thing, hated and humiliated. We do not always see justice in this world. But seeing what happened to Qaddafi, it is hard to deny there is not here an epic, divine, overwhelming arc of evil rising and consuming itself. He brought this on himself.
But that thought doesn’t push me to celebration. In this death brought by a man upon himself, I think rather of our own fragilities and failures, our weaknesses, our arrogance and its spectacular irrelevance. For here was a man who thought the world of himself, and was destroyed by himself. It is a good thing he is gone, but all the same a thing to reflect on. For those who rage at dictators should also tremble at any tendency in their direction.
I felt uneasy by the way Saddam was executed, at the rushed trial, the incompleteness of the charges he faced, the willingness to use violence to end the rule of a very violent man. And, of course, at the vulgar, unnecessary, and unacceptable spectacle of a hanging captured on a cell phone.
If there is something that should distinguish us from those dictators who have corrupted our world, it must be here. In humility before death. In appreciation of our common humanity. In the sense that the universe is infused with a law and a purpose that makes our lives and hopes sacred, and which, from time to time, turns against those who offend it, to remind us that someone is listening.
The Prophet Muhammad said: “Fear the prayers of the oppressed.”