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?
“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.