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Gaddafi is dead—but don’t cheer

By Brian Earp

Gaddafi is dead. Dragged from a concrete drain pipe, the loathed Libyan dictator—crying, according to reports, “Don’t shoot!”—was executed by rebel soldiers today before a baying crowd. His bloody corpse, manhandled, paraded, and filling up cell phone video frames, now stars in newsy apparitions across the internet.

So cue the celebrations. Bloomberg relates:

Gunfire echoed across Libya’s main cities today as crowds poured into the streets to celebrate the capture and death of [Gaddafi] … Men toted their children on their shoulders, as groups of civilians formed swirling circles to dance. … In Sirte, cries of “Allahu Akbar,” or “God is Great,” rang out.

Retributive violence in the name of God is nothing new, and it’s no surprise to hear the invocation now. These scenes immediately recall the celebratory aftermath of Osama Bin Laden’s assassination by U.S. forces in Pakistan in May. Cheering, dancing, whooping – an “evil” man exterminated; an eye for an eye!

Not everybody felt this way; I didn’t, and I don’t feel it about Gaddafi now. I take the view of psychologist Noam Shpancer, who wrote after Bin Laden’s death:

The cheering crowds … [are] a disturbing spectacle. It’s never encouraging to see humans dancing because the blood of others has been shed.

That’s certainly true; but the Gaddafi dancers—you might propose—are moving their feet in celebration not of bloodshed or death, but rather the end of a tyrannical regime, the start of a new hope, a blossoming chance for peace after so much strife.

Maybe. Maybe some are, anyway. But it’s not the whole picture. Look at the videos; read the reports. It wasn’t enough to capture Gaddafi: he was beaten to death, by some accounts, pulled by his hair, enveloped by an angry mob. When the news came out that he had died, the celebrations “reached a crescendo” with much laughter and posing for pictures. Justice served, hooray! I’ll quote Shpancer again:

The revenge narrative, while alluring and photogenic, is inherently futile. [And] the idea of killing as entertainment and public spectacle is a hallmark of an uncivilized society. For a civilized society, killing is something to be undertaken with great reluctance, aversion, and sorrow. … Every time we kill, we are reminded that we are still in the game of killing, which is, ultimately, a game of despair, pain, and futility. True, you may be dragged in against your will. But you should not rejoice while you’re in there–only when you get out. War victory is not something to celebrate. Only peace is cause for true celebration.

Let me be clear about what I’m saying. Gaddafi was a tyrant; he caused great suffering; and it’s a noble goal to eliminate his ability to cause future harm. So capture him. Put him on trial for his crimes. Imprison him. And if he must be killed, or if he’s killed in the cause of capture, then at least be grim about this news; be silent for a while. Bloodshed—even of one who’s done great harm—should be a last resort, and an occasion for furrowed eyebrows and a tight jaw, not dancing.

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51 Comment on this post

  1. But of course we should cheer, Brian.
    It is the main opportunity for all to demonstrate publicly that they are and always were opposed to his regime. A trial would necessarily identify the regime’s supporters over 40 years (inside and outside Libya); but massed celebrations allow all to instantly proclaim their revolutionary allegiance : a new national identity is swiftly born.
    Minimum pain for maximum benefit.

    1. hi anthony —

      i think it's ok to celebrate the end of a tyrannical regime; but the specific flavor of celebration i felt i was witnessing in the videos and hearing about from news reports was revenge-celebration, celebration of blood, celebration of tit for tat (surely with some of the 'good' kind of celebration mixed in). capturing gaddafi should have been sufficient–removing his power to cause harm–without glorifying in the mangle of his body. i can't stand the trumpeting of violence; if violence is necessary, it should be, as Shpancer truly wrote, undertaken with "great reluctance, aversion, and sorrow." i think the psychology of revenge is very dangerous, and, while natural, yes, should be fought against as we evolve morally.


    2. If the May Day demonstrators or the Occupy Movement happened to overthrow the government in the UK or USA and killed the Prime Minister/President – If the many hundreds of thousands who support these causes were to whoop in delight and celebrate en masse at these fictional events – would it in anyway portray the feeling of the masses as a whole or only the feelings of that group?

      Quite clearly there is a faction of Libyan society who were not happy under Ghaddafi – (the previous tribes who used to rule Libya being a case in point) – There are also very large factions in the UK and USA who would like nothing more than to see the end of the current corporate/political oligarchy – Give them guns, money and the backing of the global community and I'm pretty sure they'd rise up in revolution also.

      1. "Give them guns, money and the backing of the global community" ?
        There have had anarchy with short power (as in electric power) failures .

  2. For any nation to call itself 'civilized,' it must come out of the cage first. Yesterday's event in Libya have, without doubt, proved that even though they claim to be 'civilized,' in actuality, they left one cage and entered another.

    1. "Civilized" is a tricky word we should rather avoid. But I will agree with you if you say how disrespectful it is to kick and punch a dead body, then display it on television and newspapers. If not for him, maybe even for his family – some of whom were openly against his regime.
      All jungle people I have met behave more respectfully towards their fellows that their "civilized" and "enlightened" conterparts.

      1. Sorry, Theo, but "jungle people" aren't philosophers.
        It's a great pity, for otherwise they would see the necessity to put virtue words like "respect" into the dustbin of history and concentrate on maximum utility and oil prices. Long live civilisation.

        1. I don't want to engage in an ethnological discussion here. But civilized *is* a tricky word.

          There is a limit of what is an acceptable behavior towards criminals. Killing tyrants might be a good thing – even if it happens without a trial. But I find it hard to see the need and justification of parading and abusing his dead body. It just isn't right. If we go deeper, it even violates some war conventions (but of course no one is going to talk about that).

          Besides, it gives me the chills when I see millions celebrating someone's brutal death. It was the same thing with Osama, and, to a lesser extent, also Hussein. It makes me scared of my own countrymates.

          1. theo — you wrote:

            "There is a limit of what is an acceptable behavior towards criminals. Killing tyrants might be a good thing – even if it happens without a trial. But I find it hard to see the need and justification of parading and abusing his dead body."

            that's right on the mark with my view; thanks for stating it like this so compellingly.

      2. hi theo — i do agree that civilized is a tricky term. its history is chauvinistic–perhaps it does retain those troubling connotations–and i'd prefer a different word: since I was quoting Shpancer, and since I agree with the thrust of his point, I left it in …

  3. Brian – the mounting tally of 'Likes' of your blog on its day of publication shows you are not alone in deploring the 'celebration of bloodshed' following the killing of Gaddafi .

    Anthony – it is not necessary to parade, mutilate and print multiple disgusting images of a corpse in order to show relief at the death of a tyrant and an end to the cruel regime he dictated. Relief at Hitler's suicide was enough; news of Robert Mugabe's assassination would be enough.

    But Brian – were you really surprised at the bloodlust? I have come to realise how close to the surface of apparently civilised minds is the lynch-mob mentality. I have been put off my food at formal dinner parties by the savage views and political preferences of educated men and women. There seems no limit to the proud claims of what people would people would do to so-and-so if they had their way. And I think they mean it.

    The Broadwater riot in which a policeman was almost beheaded – to the joy of the watching mob – is not just a shameful historical event. It is a paradigm case of a common human impulse which may never be erased. Only a ban on films and photos glorifying it can dull the feeding frenzies of the many who apparently relish it.

    1. Sorry, Gwmarg, that my (no doubt clumsy) attempt at irony didn't work as planned……
      Of course it's not necessary (in fact it's shameful) to parade, mutilate and print multiple disgusting images of a corpse in order to show relief at the death of a tyrant and an end to the cruel regime he dictated …..
      …. unless you believe that the ends justify the means – which NATO seems to have adopted as its excuse for its neo-imperialistic intervention veiled by a sham, non-observed UN resolution.
      (So that there's no possible ambiguity, I do not believe that the ends justify the means.)

    2. dear gwmarg — thank you for your reply. you wrote, "it is not necessary to parade, mutilate and print multiple disgusting images of a corpse in order to show relief at the death of a tyrant and an end to the cruel regime he dictated" — and that's just the point i was trying to make. thank you for putting it so clearly.

      was i surprised at the bloodlust? not at all. not for a second. you’re right that it’s human, all too human. just disturbed by it, and i felt sorrow. it was this feeling i wanted to communicate.

      thank you again for your contribution

  4. The new era of Libyan history may have unfortunately begun with a celebration of death, but the end of a 42 year tyranny would surely have only ever ended in such hysteria. While I do not condone their rejoice, the situation is without doubt understandable, Gaddafi was their tormentor after all. I fear more, however, this immediate tendency to throw around accusations of being uncivilised before Libya can even begin to change. The post-Gaddafi Libya should be judged on how it politically follows a reign of oppression and fear, not by an impulsive crowd. I think it's a little to early for any Animal Farm quotes.

    1. Thanks Matthew: well, I and many other people may not be around to see the 'rosy' post Gaddafi Libya. If I may ask: how does the media and society describe a serial killer? Do they wait and see how a serial killer reforms himself/herself in prison and then pass judgements or do they at that moment in time simply label them with some 'Animal Farm' words? My judgement is not based on some mathematical or theoritical matrix, but the history of the people of that region.

    2. matthew — yes — i don't think throwing around accusations of libya being 'uncivilized' is fair or helpful; and i hope you don't think that's part of the message i was trying to convey. i agree, too, that the glory in violence done in this case is understandable — in the sense that i can understand it; it's part of human nature. but i think we can rise above our natures, and i would like to see us on a planet where all violence — if it had to occur — was met with sorrow and aversion, not dancing.

  5. The world wanted an end to Gaddafi’s rule. Now what? Gaddafi has finally fallen on his own sword. Is the Arab world pleased?

    One battle is over. Gaddafi is gone. But the multiple battles are going to start. Conflicts between NATO's men and the fighters and their supporters on the ground, and conflicts between the foreign forces that have spent billions in the war on Gaddafi:

    The vacuum created by Gaddafi's departure is now filled by a sharp polarisation between the rival Libyan camps between pro-Gaddafi and anti Gaddafi Libyans

    It is a contest between an independent Libyan economic nationalism and one dominated as we see in all Arab lands by the West. Will the west allow this?

    These conflicts are part of the wider scene in the region, which is characterised by polarisation between the internal dynamics of the revolution and the foreign powers' logic of containment and calculated economic control and political domination as we see in KSA

    These foreign powers' strategy is to change the old players with new ones. The neo-colonisation game rules are intact. The West will as usual initiate proxy wars manned via allied local elites, thus packing the same wine in a new bottle as they have been doing in Tunisia and Egypt.

    In the end the people of Libya are the losers. The masses should never support a regime change that is backed by Western powers as it does not create the necessary change from the point of independent economic nationalism.

    1. i think there is a good argument for western powers to stay out of conflicts such as these: regime change, then, if it were won by the people of a nation, would be authentic to the needs and motivations of the relevant people — the sufferers under the old regime; whereas 'victories' guided by the interested hand of outsiders are more suspect in my view. thank you for your comments.

  6. This article has a very one sided, closed minded view – having never lived under a tyrant nor experienced what the Libyans went through, nobody has the authority to judge how the Libyans responded.
    Granted it would be better to put him on trial and prison, but only a person looking from a 3rd person perspective can say that.
    The author doesn't know how he would have reacted in that situation had he been a Libyan and no matter how he claims he would respond, he is in no position to judge it til he goes and lives under a tyrant, and then someone hands him the tyrant and let's see how he reacts at that time
    As sad as bloodshed is, sometimes when you or your family has been terrorized by a tyrant, you'll be the one happy enough to celebrate when he's dead, or even the one happy enough to pull the trigger yourself.

    1. So, what you are saying is that the moral principles, ethical behavior and additionally, the just war theory are to remain in the books? If so, then it would be justifiable for anyone, regardless of where they live, to murder those who commit a capital crime? No need for courts. All the democratic 'values' including the justice system should just be put aside. To be clear, I believe we are not talking about the Libyans or even aliens, we are talking about MORALITY and ETHICS. These two are independent of any nation or civilization. When it comes to Morality and Ethics, subjectivity and emotionalism needs to be disregarded. If the Libyans are proclaiming 'democracy,' then they must adhere to the 'system' of 'democracy.' Else, they should distance themselves from it. By 'killing' Gaddafi, the Libyans have actually very clearly demonstrated that they are no batter than him.

      "Those who fight monsters should take care that they never become one. For when you stand and look long into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you." ~ Frederich Nietsche

        1. More apposite, if less flattering to Khalid's driveling apologetics, is "in punishment there is so much that is festive!". Without savagery there is no liberation.

    2. hi billy joe —

      if i lived under a tyrant, who knows how i'd respond to news of his violent death — you're right; i can't really predict. accordingly, i didn't say, "if i were in the position of these libyans, i would act differently from them" but rather took a longer look toward a vision of non-violence, a better state of the world: and i want to live in a world in which violence is met with sorrow, not celebration. would i be strong and wise enough to act in accordance with my own vision if i were in a position like the libyans of today? i don't know; i'd hope so. but either way i can still offer the goal.

  7. It goes without saying (and so will be said anyway) that Brian's position is a reactionary one — as if civility had a place in war — aimed at diverting attention away from the real issue of the U.S.'s attempt to determine Libya's future. Speaking of tyrannical regimes — if only Americans had the balls; how long will the civilized world wait to see Obama's head tossed down a bowling alley?

    1. dear sebastian,

      what does this mean: "as if civility had a place in war" … is your view that, in a state of war, anything goes?

      i probably agree with you that the US should have less of a role, or a non-role, in determining libya's future; hence it's not the case that my position is "aimed at diverting attention way from" this issue.

      1. Regarding the possibility of Libya thwarting US efforts to undermine the prospect of genuine independence, how is it not reactionary to deny that the result justifies the means (however "uncivil")?

        1. my post and my point are completely independent of any concerns about a US role in regime change. i object to the celebration of violence, qua violence, in any and all circumstances. foreign policy questions and means/ends calculations are interesting and important, but they have no relationship to or bearing on my thesis in this case

      2. An objection to the "celebration of violence" in this case is an objection to the celebration of the death of a despot, qua the violence that was necessary to achieve that end.

  8. Farcically, Khalid's position (like Brian's) colludes with imperialist aggression — what is respect for international law in this case but a pseudo-intellectual justification of Russian economic interests (and the violence attendant upon the pursuit of those interests)?

    1. Sebastian, thanks for your enlightened reflections. I hold the belief that personal experiences, subjectivity or emotions should never be part of an ethical debate. But in this case, please allow me to say few words: my father along with his family left his ancestral city due to the indirect effects of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. By this, you can pretty much guess my background. Let me say that regardless of my knowledge of the 21st century wars of deception and aggression, I am not going to pull this debate in the direction of politics or realism. This is for the simple reason that if I understood Brian's argument correctly, it essentially focuses on the rules of jus in bello or justice in war. War or aggression, as we know, is pure chaos, destruction, brutality and much more. Since nations have and will continue to wage wars against each other, the jus in bello rules state that why not then play this dirty game by adhering to certain rules. One of the rules state that it is never right 'to kill or harm the unarmed people.' In the case of Libyans, some might say that since both parties were not in uniform, the jus in bello rules don't apply, and that their tribal code of 'eternal' revenge must be respected. If this is so, then their claim and aspirations to adopt 'democracy' appears to be nothing but an act of hypocrisy and deception.

      1. Khalid,

        How amusing that you are at pains to employ formulations that decry "bloodshed" but still leave open — indeed collude with — the very power structures that systematically engender the very "bloodshed" you (and Brian) profess to deplore. As if "ethical debate" was independent of "experiences, subjectivity, emotions"! As if this were a question of "jus in bello", of "nations"! The mere invocation of abstract principles is no "thesis" at all. The absolute, blinding hypocrisy of your (and Brian's) position is detectable from your (evidently sincere) belief that the struggle by a persecuted people to overthrow a despotic regime can be reduced to the wearing of uniforms. I repeat: your (and Brian's) insistence on "ethical debate" is nothing but a pseudo-intellectual laminate for the overriding imperatives of big business.

  9. do humans have any right to speak about civilization? it is always the same story of an eye for an eye. Gadafi was a born criminal and he just deserved it. history is replete with hundreds of such examples.


    1. Schmitt's much touted jus publicum Europaeanum collapsed through the rise of America. The attainment of socialism is made possible by the fall of America.

  10. Mister, you strongly feel for gadafi, but understand our feelings to: he deserved death…. in fact if i had a needle, i would pierce him once daily for 100 days so he dies with such agony. do you know gadafi is the problem for uganda? he has grown us a dictator here called yoweri museveni and has told him revolutionalists dont leave power. let him rot. But for you anthony as an individual, sorry that it has caused you stress

    1. let me be clear: i don't feel for gaddafi at all; i have only the most negative, contemptuous feelings for gaddafi. and i understand that those who suffered under his reign must feel those emotions multiplied a thousand times. nevertheless, parading around a corpse and laughing at gory justice — celebrating the violence as violence, instead of as a regrettable instrumental step toward regime change — seems sorrowful to me. as i've stated before, i cannot even say that, in the same situation, i would act differently. but i hope the broader principle i'm supporting may strike some readers as worth defending.

      1. No one is celebrating "violence as violence" i.e. violence as an end in itself. Nor can we presume that the rebels shown "parading around" the bloated corpse of a deposed despot do not conceive their violence as a necessary if "regrettable instrumental step toward regime change."

          1. Thank you Khalid. What I am clear on is that you are an apologist for outrageous cruelty. That is my position, my defense is your own posting (the one about "jus in bello").

  11. The Rule of Law and the Extrajudicial Killing of Muammar Gaddafi

    "JURIST Special Guest Columnist Curtis Doebbler of Webster University and the Geneva School of Diplomacy and International Relations, both in Geneva, Switzerland, says the killing of Muammar Gaddafi appears to be another violation of international law involving the US, sending the dangerous message that one must kill or be killed…"

    "The willful killing or summary execution of a prisoner of war who is no longer participating in an armed conflict is a grave breach of the Third Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War of 1949, to which both France and the US are parties. It makes no difference how much one dislikes the particular prisoner of war. The resulting obligation for all parties to this treaty is that they investigate, arrest and punish the perpetrators of such crimes."

    1. More prevaricating. Who but a reactionary would seek to blur the distinction between imperialist atrocities committed in the name of profit-driven exploitation, and the violence that is necessary to end such atrocities once and for all? Does the end justify the means or not?

  12. Khalid and Brian are symptoms of prodigious importance: they show us pseudo-leftism in its natural form.

  13. "Those who inveigh against the execution of tyrants but serve the ambitions of the ruling classes, in a period of the greatest sharpening of the class struggle, cannot but sense the smells wafted from the waiting grave"

  14. I agree with Brian's original post and subsequent comments. Many people would go much further (I am not sure whether Brian is among them). It surprises me not to find certain further views expressed here. For readers interested in some alternative views, please see, for instance:

    "Why Regime Change in Libya?" by Ismael Hossein-Zadeh

    "Why the West Wants the Fall of Gaddafi?" by Jean-Paul Pougala

    "Libya and the World We Live In" by William Blum

    For one (of many) sources of such alternative views, see the Centre for Research on Globalisation,

  15. Ah yes the sodomy card. I suppose we should now defer our attention away from the comparatively trivial issue of in whose interest the new rulers of Libya will act, to the question of whether or not shoving a riffle barrel up the ass of a sadistic despot is "morally reprehensible" and should be answered by means of "jus in bello" principles — right Khalid?

  16. Rejoice not his terrible manner of death O keepers of the Western conscience, rejoice instead for the oil that shall flow. Rejoice also that thy lofty principles of freedom , justice and respect for human life has paid thee rich dividends .
    God and the kangaroos of the ICC act in mysterious ways.
    R.I.P Gaddaffi you ole despot . You died for a noble cause! The freedom of thy people and the prosperity of the white man.

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