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Gaddafi’s death was barbaric. In this case, though, all the alternatives were worse

A lynch-mob is a frightful thing. But just as William Hague was right to say that we don’t approve of extra-judicial killings, is a judicial killing in cold blood any better?

By on Friday, 21 October 2011

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who was killed yesterday by rebel forces. Abd Rabbo Ammar/ABACA/Press Association Images

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who was killed yesterday by rebel forces. Abd Rabbo Ammar/ABACA/Press Association Images

“Even a man like Gaddafi didn’t deserve to die in the way that he did”. That or something like it was John Simpson’s judgment on Gaddafi’s lynching by the fighters who captured him. The NTC was soon giving a more sanitised account (presumably for the benefit of Western opinion): Mahmoud Jibril, the acting Libyan Prime Minister, claimed on Thursday night that Gaddafi was caught in the crossfire as he was being taken in an ambulance to be treated for his wounds, and died from a bullet wound in his head. But that wasn’t the story of the increasing number of fragments of shaky phone video footage that as the afternoon wore on were being relayed by BBC and Sky news channels, footage which, as soon as the unconfirmed story that he had been captured was broadcast I began watching, mesmerised by the unfolding story.

He was shot in cold blood, said one disapproving commentator: actually, he was killed in hot blood: the fragment of telephone footage which finally confirmed that it was indeed Gaddafi and not someone else who had died, showed a feverish and violent scene. The Times report got it right: “Badly injured but conscious, the former dictator, 69, was bundled on to the bonnet of a pick-up truck, his shirt stripped from his torso and his body dragged along the ground… his bloody end came at the hands of the angry mob of fighters who recorded his last moments on video”. It was not an enviable death, certainly. But was John Simpson right, that nobody deserves such a death? Well, we can certainly agree with William Hague’s statement, that we do not approve of extra-judicial killings. But if ever a man deserved a violent death, it was Gaddafi: “those who live by the sword shall die by the sword”: Gaddafi stayed in power by putting tens of thousand of his own people to the sword, often after prolonged torture: it is hard to argue that he did not deserve the death he died: it may have been violent, but at least it was quick.

But it was not the death the NTC claims it wanted for him: what they wanted was a calm judicial process in which his crimes would have been rehearsed, probably over a period of months, followed almost certainly by his execution. That is what we all in the West say should have happened: that or (better perhaps for those who like myself are convinced and immovable opponents of the death penalty) for him to be sent off to the Hague to be put through an even longer judicial process, in which he would have been kept in comfortable and civilised quarters and given every opportunity to emulate Slobodan Milosevich in delivering endless harangues and to address directly his own supporters in Libya, perpetuating the country’s divisions in a way which would have made very difficult the national reconciliation that is now desperately needed.

There were five possibilities for Gadaffi’s future. The first and least desirable of all was for him to disappear into the desert, to become the anti-hero of a national myth; possibly in alliance with desert tribes who could have helped him mount a destabilising insurgency, possibly for years to come; the second was a trial in Libya; the third was a trial in the Hague; the fourth was a courageous death in battle; the fifth was what actually happened: the ignominous death of a coward in flight, summarily executed by his captors. Of all these possibilities, it seems to me that what actually happened was the least undesirable. The Hague and the desert for the reasons I have given; a courageous death in battle because it would he given rise to romantic myths of a lost but noble leader, which would have been cherished by his own people. As for what we might call the Saddam Hussein option, a trial followed by death at the end of a noose, it makes me shudder to think of it: that, indeed, would have been a killing in cold blood (its effect in Iraq was disastrous). His end was barbaric and uncivilised; all the same, repugnant in every way though his death was, it was better than any of the other options. There are situations in which there is no desirable option: and this was one of them.

  • Anonymous

    Sorry to bring up a totally unrelated topic, but is anyone else having problems with disqus? Everytime I respond to someone, it gets put at the top of the comments instead of under the relevant one. What’s going on?

  • Anonymous

    There was a sixth possibility. According to some reports he had stashed away $125bn of his country’s oil wealth for his own personal use. Just as he sheltered Idi Amin, there are various nations which would have sheltered him, to live a life in unimaginable luxury, far from any risk of an extradition to Libya or anywhere else. As it was he chose to stay and fight, and he must have known as well as anyone what the end would be: one that he could have avoided, but did not. What happened was more merciful than he would have been to his opponents.

  • Anonymous

    It is the best result for Libya. No guerilla war, no doubtful judicial process, no hangman. A clear break with a brutal past and a psychopathic dictator.

  • Anonymous

    Those with tender feelings about “due judicial process” need to consider that within the hour of his capture, he and his men had been engaging in street warfare with the NTC, and he emerged armed from the drain where he was discovered. In the heat of war people become very angry indeed, and when confronted with a mass murderer, they are not immediately disposed to think of reading someone their rights and politely asking them to come down to the police station, let alone in a country where most people’s experience of justice is detention and torture by the state.

  • Collapsetotal

    Only criminals write such words and can lie like that. god is the same for all mortals and I hope you will be judged some day.

  • Bully Beef

    With all the remaining ‘loyalist’ troops to deal with and the
    traditional suspicions of everyone as regards to ‘who supported who’ and ‘who can we blame for
    this now that my home / village / town is without food / water /
    electricity’ etc. I suspect we will soon be hearing the words ‘reprisal’, ‘blind eye’ and ‘sanctioned’ in the news reports.

    “How long, i wonder, will it be before the new government starts committing unjust deeds of their own?”

    Well I wouldn’t bother  buying a calender to count the time until that happens  – an egg timer perhaps..?

  • Lefty048

    awaiting your article on bishop finn.

  • Allan

    It’s important to note that the early Gaddafi was very much worse than the later Gaddafi. There had been some reforms and there would have been more had moral force been used instead of mob force.  Mobs don’t think, they act, and act brutally.  The brutality of Gaddafi’s murder bodes poorly for any expectation of a milder more moral government coming in his stead. These is blood-guilt on the heads of the revolters and on the foreign governments that helped them. Nothing good has happened with this savage act. Already these is talk of a new government based on the the principles of radical Islam thinking. 

  • Joel Pinheiro

    The problem, IMO, was not lack of a lengthy trial, but lack of the minimum of human dignity which we should preserve in the ghastly business of killing someone. Saddam Hussein didn’t get it either; his death might have been even worse from that point of view, as anonymous executioners shouted insults to a broken man on his way to the noose.

    A little solemnity is necessary, a little token that, despite his immense evils, we still hope his soul will be redeemed. 

  • ms Catholic state

    That is not inkeeping with Christian principles.  For it is to deny Gadaffi a chance to confess and repent before death and meeting his Maker.  Everyone should have this if possible.

  • Anonymous

    @JonathonBurdon: “is anyone else having problems with disqus? Everytime I respond to someone, it gets put at the top of the comments instead of under the relevant one.” Yes, I’m having exactly the same problem.

  • Anonymous

    @Alcatraz “Nobody on the face of this earth has the right to take another persons life. ”

    I can think of an instance where it seems legitimate: let’s say I am an armed policeman. I see a terrorist taking aim at a small child. Is it legitimate to shoot the terrorist? I think it probably is, even if I have to shoot him in the head.

  • Polypubs

    Was Gaddafi’s end ‘barbaric and uncivilized?’ I thought it looked like the end of a Video Game. Not a particularly good Video game- a beta version perhaps- but, Dr. Oddie is right, this was the best of the menu options available because Life is now a Video Game.
    Still, the Father Brown option- viz. Flambeau drops from a helicopter and savate kicks the mob away from the dictator while the little priest, using his mutant super-powers as Mole-man, tunnels an escape route for Gaddafi. What passes between them, being under the seal of the confessional, will never be known, but that murderous old Quixote finds that, by adhering to the true Bedouin code, the desert verily is the Garden of Allah. As a result, trillions of dollars squirrelled away all over the world come back to Africa and ….urm… but all this is so barbaric and uncivilized and in contravention of the Fundamental Human Right to something or other as to verge almost on poetry! Not the good kind, but the sort that rhymes and is the utter antithesis of our Video Games and gleeful iPhone footage of a wretched and unshriven death.Honestly, I thought stuff like that only happened in Miami.

  • vivek iyer

    Is  involvement in Capital Punishment really ‘designated as a latae sententiae excommunicable offence?’

    Canon 1397, referrring to homicide, kidnapping, mutilation etc (all things monks and priests really oughtnt to be doing, even if they really feel like it, coz it causes a grave offence to the faithful) is regulated by 1336 thus showing that these sorts of transgression are not censurable but expiatory and, in consequence, a matter that can be very flexibly be dealt with. Thus, for example, a humble Franciscan who has machine-gunned some Serbs or Bosnians or whatever, can quite properly baptize and say Mass and so on because someone asked him to or he thought they might want him to and were just too darn polite to ask.
    Still, the point is well taken that Catholic priests and monks should really think twice before killing, mutilating or kidnapping people because, though no personal censure attaches itself to such recreations, they are the sort of thing for which some sort of strategic rap over the knuckles may at some future time be mooted.

    Which is comforting to know, coz next time the yobbos riot expect to see our parish priest manning the machine gun nest up in the steeple tower. Come to think of it, that’s not such a good idea. He’d probably be shooting at the police just to express his disgust at John Milbank.

  • Anonymous

    Simply redefine a foetus as one whose existence endangers the State and abortion becomes Capital Punishment. Alternatively, redefine every drooling psychopath on death row as a post-natal foetus and the Pro-Choice Liberals will be lining up to harvest the li’l innocent’s stem cells.

  • Guest

    Best result all round, they even marched him round with stick up his backside…a fitting end for someone responsible for such pain….eye for an eye