Fighting Words

The New Libya’s First Mistake

Muammar Qaddafi should not have been killed, and his surviving son should be captured.

Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi
Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi speaks at a ceremony of loyalists to mark 34 years of “people power” in Tripoli on March 2, 2011.

Photograph by Mahmud Turkia/AFP/Getty Images.

Surrendering to a feeling of deep impotence and slight absurdity, I borrowed an iPad on Thursday afternoon and used it to send my first-ever message by this means. It was addressed to one of those distinguished Frenchmen who have been at the fore in pressing the outside world to remove Muammar Qaddafi from the obscene toadlike posture in which, for more than four decades, he has squatted on the lives of the Libyan people. Please, I wrote, intercede with your friends on the National Transitional Council, plus any other revolutionary tribunal however constituted, in order to stop the killing of the Qaddafi family and to ensure smooth passage to the dock at The Hague for those who have already been indicted for crimes against humanity.

Simple enough? It is some time since the International Criminal Court in The Hague has announced itself ready and open for business in the matter of Libya. But now Muammar Qaddafi is dead, as reportedly is one of his sons, Mutassim, and not a word has been heard about the legality or propriety of the business. No Libyan spokesman even alluded to the court in their announcements of the dictator’s ugly demise. The president of the United States spoke as if the option of an arraignment had never even come up. In this, he was seconded by his secretary of state, who was fresh from a visit to Libya but confined herself to various breezy remarks, one of them to the effect that it would aid the transition if Qaddafi was to be killed. British Prime Minister David Cameron, who did find time to mention the international victims of Qaddafi’s years of terror, likewise omitted to mention the option of a trial.

Among other things, this tacit agreement persuades me that no general instruction was ever issued to the forces closing in on Qaddafi in his hometown of Sirte. Nothing to the effect of: Kill him if you absolutely must, but try and put him under arrest and have him (and others named, whether family or otherwise) transferred to the Netherlands. At any rate, it seems certain that even if any such order was promulgated, it was not very forcefully.

At the close of an obscene regime, especially one that has shown it would rather destroy society and the state than surrender power, it is natural for people to hope for something like an exorcism. It is satisfying to see the cadaver of the monster and be sure that he can’t come back. It is also reassuring to know that there is no hateful figurehead on whom some kind of “werewolf” resistance could converge in order to prolong the misery and atrocity. But Qaddafi at the time of his death was wounded and out of action and at the head of a small group of terrified riff-raff. He was unable to offer any further resistance. And all the positive results that I cited above could have been achieved by the simple expedient of taking him first to a hospital, then to a jail, and thence to the airport. Indeed, a spell in the dock would probably hugely enhance the positive impact, since those poor lost souls who still put their trust in the man could scarcely have their illusions survive the exposure to even a few hours of the madman’s gibberings in court.

And so the new Libya begins, but it begins with a squalid lynching. News correspondents have been quite warm and vocal lately, about the general forbearance shown by the rebels to the persons and property of the Qaddafi loyalists. That makes it even more regrettable that the principle could not be honored in its main instance. At the time of writing, Seif-al-Islam Qaddafi, one of Muammar’s sons, is said to be still at large. It will be quite a disgrace if he is also killed out of hand, or if at the very least the NTC and the international community do not remind their fighters that he needs to be taken into lawful custody.

This is not to display any undue sympathy for Seif, or others on the wanted list. But he in particular is the repository of an enormous amount of potentially useful information, about the nature of the dead regime and perhaps even of the whereabouts of strategic material—to say nothing of vast illegal holdings of money that are the rightful property of the Libyan people. In more senses than one, it would be a crime to be party to this destruction of evidence. As for the usefulness of Qaddafi senior in the still-underdeveloped field of the study of megalomania, I should have said it was beyond price. And yet his numberless victims have to take such satisfaction as they can from seeing a blood-streaked and incoherent figure, handled roughly and in a panic and then put out of his misery by a shot that added exactly nothing to the security of the country.

I was in Romania on the day that Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu were hastily done away with, and I was in Mosul on the day before Uday and Qusay Hussein were surrounded and submitted to lethal shot and shell in a house from which there was no escape. In both cases, the relief felt by the general population was palpable. There can be no doubt that the proven elimination of the old symbols of torture and fear has an emancipating effect, at least in the short term. But I would say that this effect is subject to rapidly diminishing returns, which became evident in Iraq when Moqtada al-Sadr’s unpolished acolytes got the job of conducting the execution of Saddam Hussein. There are sectarian scars still remaining from that botched and sordid episode, and I shall be very surprised if similar resentments were not created among many Libyans on Thursday. Too late to repair that now. But it will be a shame if the killing of the Qaddafis continues and an insult if the summons to The Hague continues to be ignored.