Tuesday, October 25, 2011


Watching the awful cellphone videos of Gaddafi's last moments as a mob of rebel fighters pressed in on him to get a good look or throw a sucker punch, or after five days of his body lying in a meat locker while men bring their families inside to show them that the monster is dead, some people have been bothered at the brutality of killing a 69-year-old man and not burying his body expeditiously.

I was surprised that they didn't tear him limb from limb. His dead body is certainly quite a bit more decorous-looking than Mussolini's was, or Ceau┼čescu's, or, reportedly, Bin Laden's. Of course, they had to take care that no one damaged his face too severely that he would be unrecognizable. But DNA could take care of a positive ID, even if there had been nothing left of him but a scrap of tissue.

What the hell did anyone expect Gaddafi's death would be like after all these months? The men who caught him hiding in a culvert had been fighting from house to house, watching their friends and brothers get wounded or killed. And before the revolution, they had all been convinced, all their lives, that they weren't worth the dirt that they stood on, when any day the police could arrive and, for no reason, take one of them away to be tortured and murdered in some dungeon, or to simply disappear - buried in a mass grave somewhere in the desert. One of the reasons that some people wanted Gaddafi taken alive was so he could tell Libyans exactly where their loved ones had disappeared.

There was some concern when the revolution started about the fighting mettle of ordinary Libyan men, with no military training, in the daily prosecution of a guerrilla war. But they were probably the most well-prepared populace imaginable for such a war. Life and death were meaningless already, thanks to nearly forty-two years
of Gaddafi.

The brutalization that is unavoidable in the training of special warfare recruits has had to be made more extreme as prosperous societies have grown accustomed to peace and stability. Human beings have a natural compunction against taking a life. To overcome this compunction, the training of fighting men must involve teaching them to kill almost as a matter of reflex, with rifle or knife or whatever weapon is at hand. And this is a price that every society has to pay for its security. Libyans have had no need of such training, since brutalization was a part of their daily lives.

According to international law, every prisoner of war is entitled to be treated humanely, and it is the duty of his captors to protect him from further harm. But such a law is only binding on exceptional days, when the sun shines gently, when a cool breeze blows softly, when no storm is threatening and when the rains have all passed. Such a law wasn't made for a day like last Thursday. It wasn't a great day for humanity or for justice. But nobody can argue that it wasn't a great day for Libyans.

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