The death of Libya’s Muammar el Qaddafi on Thursday recalls the death of Mussolini in 1945, of Romania’s Ceauşescu in 1989, of Saddam Hussein in 2006, and of course of Osama bin Laden in May. They were violent, gruesome deaths at the hands of those they’d tormented, ending lives of violent, gruesome men who thought nothing of making life hell for millions. It’s not diplomatic to celebrate their deaths. It’s difficult not to.
It should be just as difficult not to feel revulsion at the manner of those deaths: summary executions, whether bloodied by revenge or whitewashed by kangaroo courts, reflect the killers’ contempt for law and not, as we’re so barbarically manipulated into believing by the commentariat’s more vulgar chest-thumping braggarts, the upholding of justice. It’s been just as revolting to hear American commentators remark about the violence of Qaddafi’s death by way of raising questions and doubt about his killers (“can these barbarians really be friends of America when it’s all over?”), when the same commentators spoke only heroically of bin Laden’s more professionally polished Navy Seals killers. The reality is that both men’s ends were identical, minus the cell-phone video of bin Laden’s more surgical assassination, which must be floating somewhere out there. And bin Laden’s assassination is now the template, blessed by the United States, for the extra-judicial killing of fallen despots.
That’s not to be shedding tears for those fallen murderers. Only for their ability, even in death, to corrupt the people claiming to be bringing them to justice.
There’s not much separating these men from serial murderers aside from numbers. The Qaddafis and Saddams of history had the lessons of Stalin and Mao to learn from, and means of mass repression and mass murder at their disposal. They availed themselves of those means for as long as they were in power. It was the only way for them to remain in power. So 2011 will be a good year for the end of bad men. In Qaddafi and bin Laden, within a span of five months, the world has been rid of two of the worst. Let’s hope the streak doesn’t end there.
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Qaddafi and bin Laden were cut of the same bloody cloth. But in matters of human suffering and destructiveness, Qaddafi was worse. He was bin Laden before bin Laden was, to murderous Islamists anyway, cool. We have short memories in the West. But for almost three decades, the champion of terrorism–he was an ATM to the IRA, the PLO, the Red Brigades–, the cash cow of civil wars and mercenaries, the fan of hijackings and rogue bombings, was Qaddafi. It’s not for nothing that Ronald Reagan called him the “mad dog of the Middle East.” He managed to do in Libya, North Africa, Lebanon and Israel-Palestine what bin Laden never could manage: he bankrolled entire wars, not just a few terrorist attacks. He had billions of oil dollars at his disposal, year after year, an entire nation under his boot, and illusions of becoming the Arab world’s universal leader.
On Thursday, he lay naked, a bullet hole through the head, the plaything of insurgents yanking his head up and down. More important is the manner of Qaddafi’s downfall: it was started and ended by Libyans themselves. They had NATO’s help, and there’s much to celebrate in ending NATO’s mission in Libya. But it was mostly a Libyan fight to get rid of a Libyan murderer.
It’s natural for the West to worry about who will take over. But it’s not the West’s place to decide. The last 40 years are Libyans’ best lesson in what to avoid, and the next 40 weeks likely their best chance to begin building a more civilized society on their terms. The good news is that the Arab Spring continues as a truly Arab, democracy-driven revolution. The better news is that a few more dictators will be falling yet, in Syria, in Algeria, in Morocco, in Bahrain, in the United Arab Emirates, in Iran, and hopefully in the holy grail of autocracy: in Saudi Arabia. The bad news is that in some of these places, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia especially, the United States is an obstacle to liberation, and still an ugly, inexcusable accomplice to repression, torture and worse.
None of America’s leaders—not Barack Obama, not Congress nor any of the GOP demagogues, buffoons and parodies posing as presidential candidates—have yet figured out that bombing and invading some dictators while aiding and abetting others ensures only two things: zero credibility and hollow leadership in the eyes of a world that once depended on both from America. While Arabs celebrate their endless spring, Obama and his GOP look-alikes are lions in winter, and their manes are shedding.