Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi died last week. A delusional meglomaniac, he ruled Libya for over 30 years by savagely repressing dissent and committing atrocities. He was also a known sponsor of international terrorism. No one will miss him.
Emboldened by the mostly non-violent regime change of the Arab Spring, anti-Gaddafi rebels took up arms, supported by NATO air strikes. America and its allies had briefly flirted with normalizing relations with Libya—fatalistically, because for decades no one had managed to dislodge Gaddafi, and by the way, Libya has tons of oil—but when they saw a chance to help get rid of him once and for all, they sided with the rebels. Some of Gaddafi’s family received asylum elsewhere, but he and his sons were determined to fight to the death. It all ended very, very badly for Gaddafi this week, when he was pulled from the drainage ditch in his hometown of Surt, beaten and abused for an enthusiastic mob, and finally executed with a shot to the head. His dead body, and that of his son Muatassim, were put on public display in a meat locker for days until they were buried in secret.
The fact that Gaddafi was captured alive but then shot has caused some hand-wringing. The New York Times wrote:
Responding to international pressure, the interim government has said it would investigate his death, since the killing of captives is considered a war crime. But there is virtually no appetite in Libya for prosecuting the killers of Colonel Qaddafi, whose violent death ended one of the most brutal dictatorships in the Arab world.
How the rebel-backed government will function, or if they even can, is unknown. But the way Western officials are concern-trolling about how something went wrong is ridiculous…and hypocritical. The international community provided those rebels significant aid in the form of arms and air strikes. They obviously weren’t opposed to violence—they just wanted it to be the right kind of violence (Not mob violence! So icky!). Unfortunately, once you set violence in motion, it’s extremely difficult to control, particularly when the people you’re enabling are desperate and enraged.
The truth is, violence is inevitable, and not always a bad thing for an oppressed people. Non-violent resistance doesn’t always work, and it certainly wasn’t going to topple Gaddafi. Non-violent movements succeed only if the powerful are willing to step down or compromise, which was never going to happen in Libya—or Romania or the Dominican Republic or any number of other nations whose strongmen truly left the citizens no option other than assassination. Some people may be squeamish about that reality, but I’m not one of them.
Those of us in peaceful Western nations like to hold up our ideal of an orderly, impartial trial followed by humane imprisonment as a model for the rest of the world—but those things are simply not possible in many places. Some states are so violent and insecure that it’s impossible to maintain the kind of order required for a clean arrest, trial, and punishment, even if they had the judicial infrastructure to carry out such a trial. Many simply don’t have the cultural or legal tradtion of impartially judged trials that Westerners take for granted. In places where strongmen do wind up on trial, it’s either because they surrendered, like Hosni Mubarak, who simply couldn’t bring himself to order the massacre of his own countrymen as Gaddafi did, or because, as with Saddam Hussein, an outside force like the US military imposed enough order that he could be safely arrested and imprisoned.
I suppose that theoretically the United Nations could be empowered to capture and try despotic heads of state. I’ve heard pundits and politicians propose that as a solution, but that just smells like good old-fashioned imperialism. To be honest, Western nations—especially the US—don’t have the best record of judging which despots should stay and which go (we were all too happy to prop up Saddam Hussein, for example, and we unapologetically put Mobutu in power). The ethics of such enforcement would also be undermined by the fact that Western nations frequently betray their stated humanitarian values by using extra-legal means—like renditions and torture—in order to get hold of war criminals so they can be brought to trial. In some cases, as in the former Yugoslavia, the people and leaders of a nation might ask the UN to oversee the trial of someone they capture themselves, and that seems reasonable. But that was not going to happen with Gaddafi. Some in the West might not have liked that the rebels gave him a bullet to the head instead of a fair trial, but there haven’t been fair and impartial trials in Libya for most of its history, and let’s face it, Gaddafi’s wasn’t going to be the first.
There have been some lamentations after Gaddafi’s death—the usual arguments that violence shouldn’t beget more violence and an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind. I don’t buy it. That brand of pacifism is usually spouted by privileged Westerners who’ve never lived under the boot of violent oppression. Those who have know that non-violence gets you exactly nowhere when pitted against the truly violent or fanatic or deranged. Libyans could have spent the next twenty years marching in the spirit of pacifism and understanding and it wouldn’t have done a damn thing except get them killed. Gaddafi had poisoned Libya with violence, fear, and injustice over decades, and then refused to get out while he still could. His end was inevitable, and entirely of his own making.
Pacifism, non-violent protest, and bloodless courtroom justice are worthy ideals, but they are not always possible. Nor are they the only way to achieve positive social change and bring down oppressors. Violence will do that too, and sometimes only violence will do it. That’s been the reality for all of human history and pretending that we’re evolved past it is simply naive.