The Death of a Tyrant

Libyans have been dreaming of Qaddafi's demise for over four decades. But when the day finally came, I could not help but wishing he had been captured, not killed.


The phone rang early in the morning, waking me up. My little sister was on the line, and I knew immediately from the breathless tone of her greeting what she was about to say. Qaddafi is dead. Killed in a gun battle in Sirte. I switched on Al Jazeera, rubbed my eyes, and stared silently at the screen. One by one, the congratulatory phone calls, emails, and text messages began to pour in, but I found myself in no mood to celebrate.

For so many Libyans, the significance of this moment is impossible to express in words, because it is the product of a particular type of lived experience — it represents the culmination of countless other moments that have lead up to this one, and which saturate it with a deep sense of history and meaning. It sounds morbid, but today was a day I had pictured over and over again in my head since I was a child, wondering how it would happen and how we would all find out, imagining my parents’ overjoyed faces in that moment of truth, along with the faces of everyone else in our community, many of whom had personally experienced dispossession, loss, torture, humiliation, imprisonment, or exile. 

But I wasn’t alone in my reverie. Growing up in a tight-knit community of dissidents in the United States, political discussions were a ubiquitous feature of daily life. Even a young child’s consciousness was permeated with images of the tyrant, and the mundane aspects of everyday life were punctuated by a grand narrative of perpetual struggle. Whether at the dinner table, on weekend picnics, or on holidays, whenever Libyans in the United States got together, they talked politics. The thing was, politics in Libya meant only one thing — one man — and you could never escape him.

What happened on Oct. 20 was the realization of a dream that had long ago crossed over into the realm of fantasy. It represents something which millions of people have been waiting, even praying, for. Such an admission may not be politically correct, yet nothing about Libyan society over the past 42 years has been, frankly.

But one man’s death cannot reverse generations of trauma. There is a palpable sense of pensiveness, even mourning, surrounding this moment, not only because of the thousands of innocent people who have been killed, maimed, and traumatized over the past eight months — but also because our loved ones who passed away over the years of his rule, and who prayed and dreamed of his demise along with us, will never know the feeling of this moment.

Exiled from their homeland or suffocated under the yoke of repression, they have perished — but we get to exhale now and, if we want, we get to go home. For me, this is a profoundly humbling thought. Libyan culture is deeply Islamic, which means that it takes seriously the responsibility to honor its deceased and its martyrs. There is a strong sense among Libyans that we need to do right by them, and not squander a moment that has come at the highest cost.

Qaddafi was finished the minute Tripoli fell, perhaps even before then. Even if he had managed to spark some chaos from whatever hole he was languishing in, the significance of today’s news is far more symbolic than it is practical. And it comes with one huge disappointment for many Libyans: His death means that there can be no trial, no chance for his people to confront him with their grievances, no opportunity for his victims’ families to look him in the eyes and make him understand exactly what he has taken from them. To add insult to injury, after having enjoyed a relatively long and privileged life, Qaddafi was shot by rebel fighters, and will no doubt be glorified by some as a martyr, or worse, as an innocent victim of imperial aggression.

It’s difficult to know what the Colonel really thought about the Libyan people and their revolution, if he actually bought into his own rhetoric about being a father, a guide, and a symbol to all Libyans. Did he really believe, as he repeatedly claimed, that the "millions" adored and supported him, or that al Qaeda, drugs, and foreign news channels conspired with a few seditious "rats" to precipitate his downfall? Was he at all aware that the overwhelming majority of Libyans wanted nothing more than to see him go?  The Colonel’s psychological state had long been the subject of intense international debate, and it is certainly conceivable that he constructed an environment that allowed these delusions to flourish. Unfortunately, the answers to so many important questions have almost certainly died with the dictator. 

As for the question of justice, Libyans who have waited for his day — their day — in court will have to take solace in their faith in a transcendent justice.

Catharsis will come only if Libyans can make peace with the past and with each other, and if they dedicate themselves to building a society committed to democracy, justice, and pluralism. They must let go of the charged rhetoric that glorifies revolution for its own sake, and remind themselves that this struggle was not about slogans and sentiment, or about military victory, or even about toppling Qaddafi — but rather about eventually bringing to fruition those ideals it claims to promote: freedom, dignity, and respect for human life. Now that the one person whom they so forcefully rallied against has been relegated to the dustbin of history, how will they move forward together in pursuit of these ideals?

I wish that the story had played out differently today, and that Qaddafi had been captured, not killed. Like many others, I wanted him to be held accountable in a court of justice. My heart sank as confirmation of his death came in, and I recalled ruefully one of the wittier answers I’d heard over the past few months to a question that Libyans had only recently dared to ask: How should Qaddafi be made to answer for his crimes? Don’t execute him, the individual responded, jokingly. Instead, put him in a room with a small television set with a live feed to the heart of Tripoli, and force him to watch Libyans go on living their lives without him.

Knowing Muammar, nothing in this world would have distressed him more — not even death.

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