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On the summary execution of murderous tyrants and the good of a timely accounting.

Despite my dislike of capital punishment I find it hard to object to the summary execution of murderous tyrants such as Gaddafi. A short period of terror followed by a swift ignominious death is much less than they deserve. What they deserve are the torments of hell. Nor is the absence of a trial an injustice done them—what doubt have we of their guilt? If they are a focus for forces intent on reviving their tyranny, and those forces will dissipate or fail without them, killing them may also be a benefit and even a necessity. So if there is anything wrong in their summary execution it must be found elsewhere and must outweigh the risks of keeping them alive. It seems to me there is something to be said on this other side and it is to be found in the good of a timely accounting.


By that I do not mean a holding to account—execution does that. I mean the taking and keeping of a full and timely account of their wickedness. The fresh victims of communism are in part victims of the lack of such an accounting of Stalin and Mao. By contrast, the accounting of the monsters of German national socialism, Italian fascism and Japanese imperialism has served us well. In the latter cases, too, it is unclear to me that summary execution would have been wrong. But it would have deprived us of the detailed and timely taking of the account that took place through the war crimes tribunals.

Certainly such trials may provide only the barest ground for the full account that we want. This is no weakness at all: Much of its good is achieved by its timeliness and its creation thereby of time and receptivity for the full accounting. The trial will at least provide an index of the tyrant’s evil and establish the credibility of the testimony of victims; there is in addition the good of the victims’ testifying and the good for the victims of testifying.

And equally certainly, such trials may be conducted by a kangaroo court. This may be a wrong, but not because it is an injustice to the tyrant—it is probably an exact justice to him. The wrong is that lies destroy the only real additional benefit the trial offers,  and moreover a true accounting is delayed and made much harder by whatever success in deceit those lies may have. Additionally, a kangaroo court may also be the instrument of the next tyrant, and serve as distraction and deception.

So here is a subtle difficulty, since to have the account we need a mechanism of civilisation—a properly conducted trial. But how is such a mechanism to be in place at the overthrow of a tyrant by the people tyrannised over. People under a tyrant must make the best they can and consequently those ready and able to step in are unlikely to be untainted. Some who step in do not wish for the true accounting. Yes, an international tribunal may be an answer here…but not necessarily for the people who are most entitled to its benefit. Knowing the full mechanisms of the last tyranny places people on alert for the insidious encroachment of the next. If that knowledge is generated and held elsewhere, it may never reach the people who need it.

The benefits of timely accounts are indirect, unclear, slow to arrive and perhaps accrue more to civilisation in general than to the victims of the tyrant, whereas the benefits of summary execution are direct, clear and generally accrue to the victims, at least insofar as they may be safer and may take satisfaction in the fact, manner and timing of the tyrant’s death. So I don’t know whether the good of an accounting generally overrides the good of summary execution. That being said, I think the good of timely accounts may be very great indeed and that the middle east would greatly benefit from such accounts. Furthermore, it appears that it may only benefit from such accounts of its own making, since the evasion that the assertions of unflattering truths are mere expressions of western orientalist prejudice has been extremely successful. Gaddafi’s summary execution, then, had a cost, a very significant cost, and one that we may yet regret.

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5 Comment on this post

  1. Gaddafi's "wickedness" is not gratuitously documented? How many more years of a "timely accounting" did the Libyan people need? What "testimony" could possibly "outweigh" the 40 plus years of unrelenting brutality and deprivation to which Gaddafi's execution already attests?

  2. I agree, Dr Shackel, with much of what you write.
    But I am not sure that a trial is the best way of establishing the timely account that we both would like to see. For trials are not designed to establish all of the truth, but merely the guilt, or not, of those caught and accused of crimes. Those who aid, abet, support or are accessories are rarely tried, especially if they have helped catch the accused or give evidence against him.
    Those outside Libya who maintained very ambiguous relations with the Gaddafi régime would not even feature in a trial. So I’m not at all sure that this would give the full accounting for which you plead.

  3. What kind of ethics do you practise here? You sound like a consequentialist when you talk about the efficiency of lynching, and the pleasure that it brought to his people, but then you talk a lot about Qaddafi getting what he in justice really deserves (torments in hell). But this moral framework seems undergraduate primitive and the higgledy piggledy construction doesn't clarify or persuade.

    I'm struggling to find any principled coherence here. I feel like I'm confronted with a Daily Mail editorial, not a professional philosopher.

  4. Mr Drinkwater raises the important question of whether a trial is an effective means to the end of a timely and full accounting. I agree that there are real practical difficulties that stand in the way of achieving this good. A lot depends on just how such a trial is conducted. I also think that a lot depends on the nature of the good of an accounting. An important part of its good comes about through it absorption into the cultural background. Even though a trial may be less good than some other means in respect of accuracy and extent(even granted that it is a start rather than a finish) it may be more effective in aiding absorption. I'm not claiming to know the answer to the best means; indeed, I think in general we spend too little effort on finding out whether we are taking the better or worse means to an agreed end. I do think a well conducted trial would be at least a partial means and might have been the only means practically available on this occasion.

  5. Where is the argument here? As if the ONLY other means "practically" available wasn't a NATO kangaroo court.

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