Slaying the Tyrant


Qaddafi is dead. Now there is the period of questioning and examination, of the circumstances and of ourselves, and self-examination is always a good thing. There are areas of our social and political life – whole political parties – in which smug certitude reigns and the death of even the hapless is cheered. In contrast, we have had several recent and notable killings of such as of Qaddafi, of those who might be thought richly deserving, but Qaddafi was the one only who headed a state and thus reigned as the real thing, evil incarnate in history – the tyrant over a nation and its people.

Among the questioners, Christopher Hitchens opined with his customary moral certainty and magnitude that Qaddafi should not have been killed, that he should have been brought before the International Criminal Court, and that the Libyan rebels had early sullied their record in victory by so unceremoniously, revengefully slaying the tyrant. I take issue not so much with any of these judgments in principle, though the last remains to be seen. I depart from Hitchens in the certainty of the judgments, and I do it not out of timorousness, but from a broader view of the judgment’s magnitude.

In his own right, Hitchens, the crusading atheist, is strikingly Old Testament in the righteous intellectual wrath he brings down on the victims of his judgment. I don’t deny the legitimacy of his doing so. I merely note that it is one of the entailments of theism that it provides the easiest of all warrants for bridging the chasm between our moral ideals and the amoral violence of nature. We separated ourselves from that violence, in aspiration, by fashioning ourselves in the image of God, or, more skeptically, God in the image of man, and the creator we posited warranted the separation we sought from the lowlier world around us. Made from the stuff of that natural world, we were enabled by our God-infused human nature, we thought, to rise above it. It need not matter that all the rest of creation appeared guided by principles of power, energy, and force – species-eat-species, the dominance of alphas – quite other from our moral divining.  Our God-reflecting nature enabled our rational and spiritual selves to establish a hierarchy of being and to place ourselves within it between God and everything else.

God, though, believe or not believe, is an imposition on the argument. The idea is pulled from out of the machine to resolve that about which we seek to settle every day – to slay the tyrant or not – through reason and from our humanity. Without God to provide that bridge from the ferocious battle for survival to our ideal selves, we are compelled to see ourselves in the world, not out of it, and any rising above is a far more tenuous enterprise. We can believe in the fruits of our moral labors and affirm that they are greater than the corresponding reality around us – not just the lion chasing down the gazelle, but the uncontainable violence of the universe, of star creation and death, of black holes shutting out even the light. But we do so, maybe, with a little more humility, a little more provisionally.

At the close of an obscene regime, especially one that has shown it would rather destroy society and the state than surrender power, it is natural for people to hope for something like an exorcism. It is satisfying to see the cadaver of the monster and be sure that he can’t come back. It is also reassuring to know that there is no hateful figurehead on whom some kind of “werewolf” resistance could converge in order to prolong the misery and atrocity. But Qaddafi at the time of his death was wounded and out of action and at the head of a small group of terrified riff-raff. He was unable to offer any further resistance. And all the positive results that I cited above could have been achieved by the simple expedient of taking him first to a hospital, then to a jail, and thence to the airport. Indeed, a spell in the dock would probably hugely enhance the positive impact, since those poor lost souls who still put their trust in the man could scarcely have their illusions survive the exposure to even a few hours of the madman’s gibberings in court.

And so the new Libya begins, but it begins with a squalid lynching.

Our ideal selves, which are also both real and admirable, would convey (“haul” is too low) Qaddafi to the dock. A civilized people would rise above the barbarian and affirm its judgment of life over death through a superior human process and not a base reaction in nature. But let us not fool ourselves about what the International Criminal Court produces in its own real nature. The “something like an exorcism” of which Hitchens writes is something our better selves might better conceive as a kind of formal, momentous, ritual condemnation, with all the weight of symbol we might afford it. We rise above the tyrant by refusing to concede to him the terrain on which we meet him (though we met him there already, of course, to defeat him). Does anyone think this was achieved in the more than four-year trial of Slobodan Milosevic? Yes, he died before judgment could be rendered, but that the trial proceeded at such length for him to do so was part of its sad realization. Or does the UN sponsored Khmer Rouge Tribunal, so late, so protracted, so ineffectually non-compensatory in its response to evil – does it render the necessary symbolic judgment and deliver us to that higher plane?

The knowledge of such processes of law and bloodless judgment rather puts me in mind of some episodes of Star Trek, in which the humans we know are led to encounter in the more advanced beings of another planetary civilization some projection of our future selves. So often the picture is of pure reason dehumanized in humanoid form – or not even – which fearful prospect was the war meant to be combated on the front line at the center of Spock. Judgment among these higher beings is always rendered according to those higher principles, the greater affirmations of reasoned value; what is missing always are the fully human beings who might feel their import and be moved by their meaning.

Such are the contradictions of the world in which we live, of ourselves, and of ourselves living in the world. Yes, continue to build those greater monuments to our jurisprudence and our greater selves. But let us not be blind to the limited achievement they so far represent, or to what occurred when Qaddafi was killed. Like the nova of a star, gasses have accumulated – the decades of oppression and murder, a tyranny of the soul as much as of the body. The explosion occurs. What may be destroyed by it? Maybe everything. Maybe only that inciting element that is the tyrant we recognize as evil. State-sponsored, regulatory capital punishment may seem well removed from anything either natural or civilized, but what can be more natural, at the end of a long awful road of violence to throw off the yoke, than the death of the tyrant? It has been, if possible, ever thus. It may not be the path to set for ourselves, or an act to serve as guiding star, any more than the death of Ceausescu. But all that may be squalid in the death of a tyrant was squalid in him. If the Libyan rebels fail in their revolution, they will not have failed in that act or because of it. And compared to a heart attack in his cell, there is something to be said for a low and ignominious end to the tyrant just crawled out of his hole.


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