Posted by: Hannah | 10/21/2011

death of a dictator

Every successful tyrant puts on in time the robes of the tyrant it has deposed. – Barbara Tuchman

Yesterday saw the death of Moammar Gadhafi, a fearsome dictator who ruled Libya with an iron fist for longer than I’ve been alive.

The Prime Minister of Libya’s transitional governing council said he was killed in the crossfire between rebel forces and those fighters still loyal to the dictator’s regime.

But the pictures beamed around the world tell a different story.

They show an old man, hunched and shirtless, covered in blood, shoved and pistol-whipped by a gang of screaming men, the whole brutal execution caught on a cell phone camera. They show his corpse lying in the dust, being kicked, being spat on.

They show the total death of the rule of law, the total absence of democracy and due process, and sadly the reason why the Arab Spring has not actually succeeded anywhere but Tunisia (and yes, I’m including Egypt – they’ve just replaced one military dictator with another).

I understand the impulse that would make a brutal revenge killing seem like a good idea. I don’t blame the fighters on the ground for taking matters into their own hands. I blame the leaders of the transitional government, and NATO, for making it seem like that was the right path.

I’m not against the death penalty. But I think it must come after due process has been served, after a trial process as free of corruption and interference as possible, after the world has seen that democracy can get results. Punishing a strongman for brutally taking the law into his own hands by using force of arms to punish him is like hitting a child to make them stop hitting – it’s the height of hypocrisy, it’s indefensible, and it doesn’t work.

In recent months, the United States has taken the position that eliminating terrorist threats through targeted attacks on foreign soil is the best way to keep their citizens safe. It’s how they ‘got’ Osama Bin Laden – an evil man who needed to be gone, for certain. They also assassinated another high-ranking Al Qaeda operative. And now Gadhafi. I’m sure for a nickel they would do the same to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

But where does it end? And will they extend tolerance to foreign leaders who choose to assassinate their own particular enemies on American soil? What if a Chinese dissident hides out in Los Angeles? Or a Cuban revolutionary escapes to Miami? There’s one walking around there now. The Cuban leadership wants him dead. Will the Americans stand by calmly if they take the law into their own hands?


Complicit in this new world order is the media. Watching The National on CBC last night, Peter Mansbridge was downright gleeful as he said “there are graphic images of Gadhafi’s end beaming around the world tonight” – and then aired them. Newspapers around the world featured still photos on their front pages. I watch Real Time with Bill Maher on HBO, and every time he mentions the death of bin Laden he’s downright hawkish – and his audience cheers. These are the same people who condemned Republicans for cheering at the mention of a prisoner execution in Texas. What’s the damn difference? A life is a life. Dehumanizing anyone and glorifying in their death at the hands of a mob is not the example we as a society should be setting.




  1. I agree with you on all accounts. I think he was a very bad person, but I couldn’t help but feel bad for him when I saw how he was treated. Two wrongs do not make a right. Treating him like that did not bring back all the people who died because of him, heal all the wounds (physical or mental) suffered because of him, or end any injustices he created. All it did was was show that even the good guys are flawed.

    To clarify, when I say “him” I really mean him and all his posee.

  2. yep. such complicated feelings. am i sorry that Gadhafi (or Qadhafi, or Ghaddhafi…how is it in 40 yrs of covering this man the media never managed to come to an agreeable romanization of his name?) was caught, or even is dead? myself, i can’t say i muster up much sympathy for the end.

    but the means? concern me. i have sympathy for any human in that moment of mob madness, even in the rare case – and this is one – where i can understand how the mob thought he deserved it.

    i’m simplifying into kindergarten speak, perhaps, but two wrongs don’t make a right. it is probably best that he’s dead. i wish we didn’t have so many damn double standards around it, though.

  3. The pictures make me sick – I won’t look at them. Same with the reaction after Bin Laden was killed. It made me sick. These are solemn occasions, that should be met with a solemn voice by the media – not glee and excitement. I am not saying that the people who were touched by his regime should not be gleeful and excited – they should be. But the media should at least strive to avoid sensationalism.

  4. Like I said on twitter yesterday, I clicked over to the Daily Mail (which isn’t even a REAL newspaper just a tabloid) & they had screen captures of Qaddafi’s capture, beating, “execution,” and his corpse. My 7yo was standing next to me. Thank god I’m Quick-draw McGraw with the mouse scroll button.

    I’ve no sympathy for brutal dictators who are offed, but at the same time (and this is contradictory, I admit) I find the gleeful rejoicing at death distasteful. I also think no purpose was served by airing that footage on the news (other than retaining a few ghoulish viewers who’d have gone elsewhere to see the video). I agree with the editorial decision of the mainstream media to NOT air footage of people jumping from the Twin Towers. I agree with the White House’s decision to censor the footage of Bin Laden’s death. I wish that the National and other shows/sites had not aired this snuff video.

    Excellent post, H.

  5. I hear what you’re saying, but if I had lived under the man’s regime, I don’t know if I could have done anything differently. And I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t like to see them do much the same to Kony when they catch that bastard.

    I could have done without the constant regurg of the images though. Explaining Libya to my child was hard enough without those shots.

  6. I couldn’t understand the jubilance either. I don’t watch the news and have barely had time to do anything other than work/sleep so I managed to avoid the whole image storm, but even if this meant good things for Libya, I didn’t see the point in rejoicing over the death of someone. The capture of someone like him? Yes. The end of that rejime? Yes. But death just… isn’t something to celebrate.

    If anything, I see it as a chance lost – personally I want him to feel SORRY FOR WHAT HE DID. And now he’s dead and I have to feel all sorry for him instead.


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