Those Images of his corpse. That face, still alive but bloodied, hounded, and taunted. That bare head—suddenly and oddly bare! We were used to seeing him in turbans, and there was something poignant in the denuding that renders this criminal strangely pitiable.
You can say that the man was a monster. You can replay again and again the scenes that for eight months have haunted the friends of free Libya—the images of mass executions, torture, the hangings of April 7, the prisoners who were sort of buried alive until released from their prisons by the revolution—these and so many other victims of the dictatorship. You can point out that Gaddafi had a hundred chances to negotiate, to stop it all, to save himself, and that, if he elected not to do so, if he preferred to bleed his people to the very end, he chose his fate knowingly. You can observe that the West is not necessarily in the best position to teach the rest of the world lessons about revolutionary mercy. After all, don’t the Europeans still have on their consciences the massacres of September 1792 in France? What about the women whose heads were shaved after the liberation of Paris? Mussolini hung by his feet and abused? The Ceausescus slaughtered like old cattle?
I don’t buy it. I may be an incurable romantic, or what amounts to the same thing, an unreconstructed opponent of the absolute evil that I believe the death penalty to be. There is, in the spectacle of Gaddafi’s lynching, something revolting. Worse, I fear that it will pollute the essential morality of an insurrection that had been, up to that point, almost exemplary. And anyone who knows something about revolutionary history knows that this could be the tipping point at which a democratic uprising begins to degenerate into its opposite.
I said as much by telephone to some of my friends in the National Transitional Council. I said it to Mustafa el-Sagizli, the leader of the fighters in Cyrenaica, who called me to share his joy after the liberation of Sirte. And then, later on Thursday, to the commander of the regiment that included the unruly elements that struck and killed Gaddafi. He was happy. He said (and he was right) that the disappearance of the tyrant opens a new page in the history of his country. Through a friend, a shipowner in Misrata who was translating into English for me, this commander gave me the scoop on the capture: “He treated us like rats, but he was the rat, down in his sewer pipe, and it was my fighters who found him, pulled him out of his hole, and subdued him.” To him, too, I said that this was indeed a great day, a new dawn for Libya, but that the nobility of the conqueror is measured in how he treats the vanquished. “Do you know the difference between Caesar and Saladin?” I asked him. “Caesar, conqueror of the Gauls, lost the moral benefit of his victory by humiliating Vercingétorix, showing him off like a trophy before having him strangled. The glory of Saladin, by contrast, owes much to the magnanimity that he showed the Crusaders after he had defeated them and had them at his mercy.”
The commander seemed to understand. And the officials of the NTC whom I was able to reach sounded perfectly aware that the fate of the Libyan Spring may hang on these images. El-Sagizli, in particular, the prince of the Libyan resistance fighters and the organizer of the Benghazi resistance from the first days of March, clearly shared my concern. He is among those who insisted on a formal investigation, the very existence of which proves that the Libyan authorities are not rushing to cover up this act.
Two outcomes are possible.
Either this collective crime will be, like the beheading of the last king of France in Albert Camus’s account, the founding act of the coming era, which would be a terrible sign. Or it will be the swan song of a barbarous age, the end of the Libyan night, the death rattle of Gaddafi’s system, which, before expiring, must turn against its founder and inject him with his own venom, making way for a new era that will fulfill the promises of the Arab Spring.
As I write, the latter is my ardent wish. More than that, it is my conviction.