Thursday, October 20, 2011

The End of Qaddafi

Propaganda image of Moammar al-Qaddafi dressed as an admiral among sailors of the Libyan navy, ca. 1980

It's not often one gets to watch the end of an era come to a bloody end on a tiny Youtube screen, but today I watched two videos of the death of the fugitive Libyan dictator Moammar al-Qaddafi at the hands of the NATO-backed former rebel forces. The first shows a bloodied but still alive Qaddafi being dragged off the hood of a car. He looks dazed and semi-conscious as he's manhandled into a crowd. He had apparently just been discovered in a metal culvert, and shot while trying to escape his fate. This was at the end of the merciless siege of the last Qaddafi stronghold of Sirte, a town that apparently proved the old Vietnam-war era military adage about "destroying the village in order to save it." The second video shows Qaddafi's considerably bloodier and less alive body being kicked around in the dust. A gory still photo that followed showed more of Qaddafi's bloodied head and lifeless eye sockets than I cared to ever see.

And so an oppressive dictator died, reportedly about the same time as his two sons Muatassim (definitely dead, more gory pictures) and Saif al-Islam (reportedly so or at least wounded), who had stayed with their father and refused to go into exile with other members of the family as Tripoli fell to the rebels in late summer. It was time for his dictatorship to go, and at least a whole lot of Libyan people seem pretty happy about that. But honestly, watching these gruesome videos I felt a little sad.

All the Libyan civilians and international photojournalists who lost their lives in Libya's short but brutal civil war deserve the real tears that perhaps Qaddafi does not, but it's hard not to reflect on the humanity ending so abruptly before the cameras. Oh I understand the merciless are rarely afforded mercy, but still it doesn't feel exactly like justice when those living by the sword die by it, despite what the Christian Bible says about such inevitabilities. I'm against the death penalty, even for men who have proved their moral bankruptcy many times over. I don't celebrate the brutality I witnessed today.

Stamp design showing the American assassination attempt on Qaddafi in 1986 in which his adopted daughter was killed

It's so easy to accept the media cliche that Qaddafi was a "madman." He was certainly a man of his own tastes and eccentricities, but isn't it funny how America's "enemies" are always demonized as "madmen" as though it's the requisite dehumanization required to objectify them and lust for their deaths: Iraq's Saddam, Iran's Khomeini and Ahmedinejad, Venezuela's Chavez, even Cuba's Castro. Never mind that all these leaders, rogues or heroes depending on one's perspective, all have or had plenty of solid reason to choose the side they were on. I have never believed I was better than anyone else solely because of the accidental location of my birth (which, come to think of it, wasn't the United States anyway, but I digress). That kind of us-against-the-forces-of-darkness patriotism is a sickness. Americans might want to hold our own leaders to higher account before looking to cast stones about the neighborhood. And pity the poor actual madmen among us: I saw several today on the subway. They weren't capable of running countries and I didn't want to kill them even slightly.

And I don't know about you, but somebody sending jets to try and kill me but instead killing one of my children and a few dozen neighboring civilians, well, that would sure make me mad.

Many cite the PanAm airplane explosion over Lockerbie, Scotland and grit one's teeth coldly and say Qaddafi deserved what he got. Well, if you believe that's what actually happened. I'm no scholar of that terrible destruction of innocent life, but the accounts that claim Libya had nothing to do with Lockerbie and place the blame on other rogue terrorists seem as feasible to me as the ones that claim Qaddafi somehow masterminded it. Not being a student of those facts I wouldn't get involved in a heated argument on the subject. But I know the record of spies and lies in the 1970s and 1980s and let's just say if I had lost a loved one over Lockerbie I would resent my loss being used for anyone's political justifications, and certainly wouldn't wish to spread the suffering around.

Cartoonish propaganda stamps showing Qaddafi in civilian and military guise ca. 1982

Certainly Qaddafi had a high opinion of himself, and created a classically visual personality cult around himself. He had his own ideology, contained in the incredibly boring and disingenuous Green Book (I guess my copy is now a collector's item). He had an army of women with guns around him for a while, which you would think would have made him more popular with elements of the American population who like B-movies with that plot, but oh well. He really, really wanted to be loved. He claimed the love of the Libyan people, the African people who he claimed to want to unite, and, at his last speeches to the United Nations in which he pleaded for more powerful representation for the third world, he claimed the love of the peoples of the entire planet. I'm not saying that love was actually redeemed.

There's a lesson there for all of those with money and (regional) power: those who tell you they love you might not really mean it when the money and power go away. And if you want your people to love you for giving them the pleasure of living in a socialist egalitarian paradise like the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya claimed to be (yes, that was the official name of the country), you might want to remember that a reasonable standard of living is not enough if your faux socialist paradise is also secretly a repressive police dictatorship where you can end up in jail or a mass grave for speaking your mind.

In the end Qaddafi and his sons refused an extended Saudi Arabian retirement, unlike certain other falling dictators. They were not apparently thanked for this last display of patriotism. I guess they proved they were committed to their own image. Whatever that's worth. Not much in the end, I guess.

Just a couple of world leaders shaking hands.

In the aftermath of the American toppling of Saddam Hussein, Qaddafi decided to come in from the cold. While occasionally reverting to bouts of his former rhetoric, he made nice with imperialism. He made nice with President Bush and with British Prime Minister Blair and for a while with Bush's successor Obama. He took the virtual bullet for Lockerbie more or less on the same basis as Mark Zuckerberg settled lawsuits over his social network, something you can afford to do when money is being pumped out of the ground. Where once he reviled Italy for its brutal decades of occupation before World War II — the world's first civilian concentration camps were established by Italy to punish rebellious Libyans in the early 20th century — Qaddafi made especially nice with corrupt Italian leader Berlusconi, promising to help him keep unwanted African immigrants from crossing the Mediterranean into Italy.

Hillary Clinton making nice with Qaddafi's son Muatassim, also reported killed today.

Qaddafi's grown children tried to rehabilitate their reputations and that of their father, posing as international businessmen or diplomats. Heck they were international businessmen selling lots of oil to a greedy European market. But all those smiles went south when the season turned to Arab spring.

Memo to self: beware of shaking hands with members of a government that has already tried to kill you even if the last time you met them they seemed happy to see you.

One of the last stamps issued by the Qaddafi regime (in 2010) honored the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and claimed racism was outlawed in Libya.

Qaddafi was the last of his kind: that generation of late 1960s/early 1970s nationalist leaders who spoke a language that sounded like it was leftist and anti-imperialist but on closer examination proved to be something quite different. It seems like today's authoritarians have mostly dispensed with the language of socialism or social justice. The dictators of Qaddafi's day needed to legitimize themselves by claiming a higher cause. Sadly, in the end they just poisoned the well, ruining the reputation of socialism which became equated with mere statism and repression; reserving the equality of poverty for the masses while a privileged class at the top enjoyed villas and luxury yachts.

And so this last Qaddafi-era stamp is sort of poignant. I mean, even the United States hasn't put MLK on a stamp since the 1980s. Yet it seems extraordinarily unlikely given the rumors of racist atrocities against West African immigrants by the now-victorious Libyan rebels that there was some kind of widespread anti-racist consciousness under Qaddafi's rule.

I hope the Libyan people find justice and freedom from new kinds of oppression. I hope they haven't poisoned that well with the brutality of this civil war and the extra-legal execution of their former ruler. I hope they understand — or learn quickly and not too painfully — what kind of deal with the devil they have made by inviting in NATO and empowering a new spirit of American interventionism. A new spirit of interventionism that is, by the way, already evident in President Obama's dispatch of a small unit of American soldiers and military advisers to Uganda to fight the so-called Lord's Resistance Army. Yes, our so-called "peace" president involves the country in another war.

I hope Arab spring fulfills its promise. As spring turns now toward winter, there are reasons both for hope and for concern. Libya shows how hard the "West" will try to keep control of the situation. Despite the decidedly mixed bag of events in Libya, Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen and Palestine, we also have the worldwide Occupy Together movement birthed by #OWS but spawned by a new popular awakening. As much as NATO bombings and executions in the streets seem like depressing precedents, I remain hopeful. Spring always comes round again.

Stamp images mostly from


  1. I can't really celebrate either. Couldn't they have just brought the case of crack downs to the Hauge or U.N.?

  2. Thank you for saying both that Qadaffi's death is not something to be celebrated, and for providing historical perspective. It's at moments like this, I think, especially when so many people are celebrating a death, that we need this sort of perspective. John Donne said, "Each man's death diminishes me," and I believe he felt that applied to even those he would consider enemies.

    And like you I hope the brutality of this revolution and others in the Arab spring doesn't poison the well. Historically some revolutions have put in place governments that were just as bad, or worse, than the ones they sought to overthrow in the first place. I sincerely hope that doesn't happen with Libya.

  3. @JM I'm not sure what I think of those venues which feel a little "outsider." Though at least the Hague doesn't have the death penalty.

    @Christopher, thanks for the comment and the Donne quote. Time will tell, eh?