Philip Hensher: A brutal execution that delivered instant satisfaction – but not justice

 

Share
Related Topics

Colonel Gaddafi was accustomed to appear in public wearing enough insignia on his chest to cover a dining table.

Whatever else his medals were awarded for, it wasn't bravery. Ceausescu went to his death before a firing squad singing the Internationale. Saddam Hussein died shouting "Do you consider this bravery?"

But Gaddafi seems to have died the death of a coward, found in an outflow pipe, cringing. He shouted "Don't shoot, don't shoot", and according to one freedom fighter, "What have I done to you?" Considering the scale of Gaddafi's crimes, the freedom fighter might very well have been able to supply a precise and specific answer to the question. He was beaten, and, it seems, killed with a shot to the head. The images of a bloodied Gaddafi in his last momentsquickly went round the world.

What was the alternative? A long wait: a glass box in the Hague; interminable self-justifying speeches; a slow loss of interest by the media and public as the months dragged on; and a final, inevitable verdict which few could take much interest in any longer.

As theatre, the death of Gaddafi was surely unbeatable, and satisfied its audience richly. Like the Thane of Cawdor, nothing in his life became him like the leaving of it. He was revealed in his true nature by his last moments. Was it the right way to bring his brutal rule to a conclusion? What is the value of theatricality in these circumstances? For various reasons, it is in the interests of governments to demonstrate that its opponents behaved, or died like cowards. It discredits them in the eyes of those who might support them otherwise; it appears to demonstrate that there was no justice in their cause.

Bravery, of course, is no guarantee of rectitude, and if someone dies in a way which must have required bravery, there seems no reason to admire them for those reasons. Suicide bombers must be crazily brave people, but reasons of propriety require governments to describe them as "cowardly" in all circumstances.

The circumstances in which Osama bin Laden died, for instance, were initially stated by the US forces to show him in as cowardly a light as possible, and he was said to have used a woman to shield himself. Surely, it hardly matters whether Osama bin Laden died bravely or cowering behind his wives. Given the enormity of his deeds, no-one could think of him with admiration just because he met his death with bravery.

But the requirements of theatre demand that these people should show cowardice at the end, and in this, Gaddafi seems to have answered to requirements. There is no doubt of his total humiliation at the end.

Why the violent deaths of major public figures sometimes meet the imaginative requirements of the age with great exactness is an interesting, but rather puzzling question. The Duc de Berry's assassination at the Paris Opera in 1820 forms a very curious example. He was stabbed on the steps of the opera, embraced by his young wife. His beautiful widow later gave birth to a posthumous heir. The whole thing is astonishingly like the fantasies of a Victor Hugo, and the point is that sometimes everybody involved – the victim, the assassins, the audience, posterity – knows exactly how to behave. Such moments of theatricality are, in a way, more telling about the facts of the society than anything else. Perhaps, in acting out the fantasies of a society, they are more purgative, too.

The killing of Gaddafi shows exactly where Libya has got to, and, in the excitement of the moment, we might overlook how very ugly it is. In eight months of rising insurrection and protest, the opposition has failed to create a credible alternative structure of power.

There was no alternative to an angry crowd, dragging the dictator from his concrete pipe. Even Ceausescu, at Christmas 1989, was given a brief trial before being shot by firing squad. It was not much of a trial; it was, too, for the sake of the drama as much as anything; but there were officers, and an arraignment, and an event which afterwards could be examined by historians for its propriety and justice.

The theatricality of the Gaddafi execution had none of that. And yet it answered an evident, savage need in the Libyan people. They demanded not just that justice be done, but be seen to be done, immediately, on camera phone footage; they wanted to see with their own eyes that some fragment of the sufferings Gaddafi had visited on his subjects was returned to him. If they could, they would have put his head on a spike in the centre of Tripoli.

There is something pornographic about the enthusiasm for visible, immediate, physical punishment which is indifferent to justice. Some of the people who are watching the last minutes of Gaddafi with interest will also have seen – with what emotions I don't know – the samizdat films of judicial mutilations of minor criminals, beheadings of kidnapped Americans which circulate in the lower levels of the internet. Why they happen is almost irrelevant. What matters is the spectacle, freed from morality or rectitude.

It can't go on like that. Summary justice is no justice. Hardly anyone will mourn the death of Gaddafi, and plenty of people will say it saves a good deal of trouble and expense in the International Criminal Court. The mills of international law grind exceedingly small, and the proceedings hardly ever satisfy the enthusiasm for theatre which a dictator's end might seem to require.

A legal examination of atrocities can provide a national ceremony of purgation – think of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, or the 7/7 inquiry here. But they can seem less satisfying than a powerless, cowardly gangster dragged from a sewage pipe, beaten and shot, like an episode of a brutal American TV drama.

As time goes on, the connections between our imaginative fantasies and these great events will become clearer; clearer, too, the way in which our duty to our civilisation tends to get left to one side in all the excitement.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron's 'compassionate conservatism' is now lying on its back  

Tory modernisation has failed under David Cameron

Michael Dugher
Russian President Vladimir Putin 'hits his foes where it hurts'  

Dominic Raab: If Western politicians’ vested interests protect Putin, take punishment out of their hands

Dominic Raab
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform