Well meaning human rights groups and writers watched the humiliation of Mu’amar al-Qadhafi with horror. He faced no charges, stood at no trial and was dumped in a shipping container with a bullet in his head. Pity he could not have faced a trial before the Libyan people or some international authority rather than being ripped up and executed in the street. Your blogger feels this was fitting enough: Qadhafi allowed his own enemies nothing much better. It is reasonable to worry that this might set a precedent for more such revenge killings for his supporters, that this might inspire (or validate) a tendency toward arbitrary mob ‘justice’ in the new Libya. It also the case that in the course of the war there was much of this sort of revenge killing on the fly. Those and the ones which may happen now and in the future are quite significant. Qadhafi’s death itself is emotionally satisfying but politically somewhat beside the point. The ‘tide’ had turned in Libya no later than the capture of Tripoli; building institutions (which it is now commonplace to say Qadhafi left none) and monopolising the use of force is paramount now. As Paul Pillar notes, Qadhafi was not Napoleon and his elimination does not alter things for the new authorities in Libya any more than the capture of Saddam Hussein did for Americans in Iraq.
At the New Yorker Amy Davidson notes how small a place Libya is and hopes ‘those interconnections will encourage reconciliation, or all the more remorseless fratricide’ and that Qadhafi’s unceremonious killing will not become a ‘template’ for offing minor regime figures. She writes:
[. . .] one wants to know what the National Transitional Council is doing to make sure that Qaddafi’s death does not become a template for the killing of more minor members of his regime, or of his tribe, or residents of Sirte. (Having helped bring the N.T.C. to power, we have an obligation to ask.) The Times had a story today that was not encouraging, about the killing of dozens of people in a hotel garden in Sirte; the bodies, including, according to people on the scene, “at least two former Qaddafi government officials, local loyalist fighters and maybe civilians,” had been taken away, leaving behind “plastic ties that were used to bind the hands of victims and shell casings, scattered on the dead grass in patches of blood.” Qaddafi’s regime was, of course, built around this kind of violence, but that is a reason for extra wariness now, not for looking away.
Another thing that we have learned—and this is almost as disturbing as scenes of Qaddafi being beaten, stripped, and, it looks like, sodomized—is that spokesmen for the National Transitional Council don’t mind saying things that not only aren’t true, but that the speaker, the listener, and anyone who has glanced at the evidence knows aren’t true, like that Qaddafi was killed in “the crossfire,” or maybe by his own men. (As the Times put it, “That suggestion is sharply at odds with the video evidence that has surfaced.”) The ultimate indignity of a dictatorship, as so many of the protesters in the Arab Spring said, is that of having to listen to a lie with a straight face, with no pretense, on either side, that one is being lied to. So many ordinary Libyans have sacrificed so much not to live that way. Why begin building a new country by inveigling them in a collective lie?
In the case of the first paragraph, it should be noted that this sort killing was observed on both sides throughout the war. Relative few journalists dwelled on this but one should not believe that rebel strugglers became overzealous during the assault on Sirte because Qadhafi was there; this problem of discipline and acts of revenge were widespread throughout the war. In the second paragraph, again, the rebel authorities’ use of lies and misinformation was widespread during the whole of the war, not just over the killing of Qadhafi. The NTC’s version of events has often been at odds with facts and independent reporting. This, again, was observed but poorly noted by outside observers during the war. A regime that tells lies is of course undesirable (though ‘lies’ and secrets are sometimes necessary) and one cannot assume that because many ‘ordinary’ Libyans engaged in such reprisal killings during the war that the rest of society ought to condone them or ought to avoid reconciliation or that they will favor fratricide to reconciliation or something else. But it seems the problems Davidson mentions here are especially troubling when one believes that on the one hand there are essentially ‘good’ folks (the new authorities) behaving well and ‘bad’ ones (the old Qadhafites) behaving badly and that the observer ought to expect the ‘good’ ones to conform to some highly desirous but nonetheless rare tendency toward liberalism and the rule of law in the wake of a military victory in a bloody civil war. When one divests himself from a war and looks at how any side behaves he often finds that those he thought were ‘good guys’ are not especially more virtuous in the process of war than those he thought were ‘bad guys,’ especially in civil wars. Fighters wearing the ‘good guys’ colors often behave badly. There is the tendency in psychological warfare to lie to the enemy and to the media and even to one’s own people; there is the tendency in civil wars to personalize combat and raiding, to hold civilians and combatants alike accountable for past slights and indignities and for abstractions like ideology or their preference (from sincerity or fear) for the other side. So many of the strugglers fighting against the Qadhafites were not professional soldiers and had only minimal training before hitting the line. These things are to be expected and deplored and regretted of course. One recalls Trilling writing:
If only life were not so tangible, so concrete, so made up of facts that are at variance with each other; if only the things that people said were good were really good; if only the things that are pretty good were entirely good; if only politics were not a matter of power—then we should be happy to put our mind to politics, then we should consent to think!
It would be fantastic for Libya’s new authorities to live up to liberal standards of the rule of law and transitional justice. They may well do so, if imperfectly. But one cannot assume that in Libya and unlike everywhere else the course of politics will be about anything else but power and what those with it see as most properly beneficial. There will be messy incidents in transitional Libya; the case of black refugees and migrant workers accused of being mercenaries (these people were long abused in Libya before the uprising, as well) is an ongoing outrage, for example. There is something simple in agreeing that removing Mu’amar al-Qadhafi is in itself a beautiful and commendable thing. One could have only dreamed of such a thing less than a year ago; but that the realisation of one great dream does not mean all of one’s other dreams will come round easily, especially not the more abstract ones. Davidson writes that
Are we quite sure that the course of Italian democracy after the war might not have been different, and better, and the rule of law stronger, if fascism had died differently there? Obviously, Italy is not some charnel house now; but what might it have been?
The last few days have been the assembly of a movie in which Qaddafi is the main character. For Libya’s sake, it would be convenient if the credits could roll now, and we could move on to a sequel in which he is absent. But that won’t be accomplished by ignoring what we’ve seen so far. Does it matter if he deserved what he got? Or, much more so, that the Libyan people deserve better?