The Magazine

Sic Semper .  .  .

From the Scrapbook

Nov 7, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 08 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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Tyrants come and go, sometimes dying in their beds, but more often than not dying at the hands of long-suffering subjects or conspirators. Hitler (1945) shot himself while the Red Army closed in on his bunker. Nero (68 a.d.) cut his throat before he could be beaten to death. Stalin (1953), after suffering a stroke, probably died because his underlings were too frightened to summon a physician. Samuel Doe of Liberia (1990) was tortured before he was executed; Doe, in turn, had tortured his predecessor William Tolbert (1980) before murdering him.

Photo of gold statue head

AP / SergeyPonomarev

The Scrapbook was reminded of these melancholy facts by the grisly last moments of Libya’s Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, who seems to have been shot in a minor skirmish, dragged wounded from a drainpipe, beaten by rebel fighters, and dispatched with bullets to the head and chest. Few mourn the loss of Qaddafi, but more than a few seem to have been shaken by its manner. “You never like to see anybody come to the kind of end that he did,” President Obama told Jay Leno on the Tonight Show. Not since the swift trial and execution of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceau-sescu and his wife (1989) has summary justice so captured the attention of the world. 

In The Scrapbook’s view, this is probably the consequence of modern technology. When Robespierre was overthrown and executed during the Terror (1794), there were no cameras to record the event, or telegraph wires to disseminate the news. But the sight of the dead Mussolini (1945) hanging upside down beside his mistress​—​duly chronicled on film​—​gave the civilized world a moment’s pause. The fact that Qaddafi’s last moments were recorded on video for posterity has contributed to a certain official unease, and the inevitable calls (from U.N. headquarters and Amnesty International) for an investigation and possible prosecution for war crimes.

The problem, of course, is that dictators seldom retire from their jobs, and certainly disdain surrendering their powers. This is partly because of the pathological nature of such people, and partly because the loss of power renders tyrants vulnerable to public vengeance. 

As Winston Churchill once said, “Dictators ride to and fro upon tigers which they dare not dismount.” Occasionally a tyrant will be subject to some judicial process and sent to prison or into exile​—​Napoleon (1815), Madame Mao (1981)​—​but they are the lucky ones. The tendency of oppressed people, when confronted with their oppressors suddenly shorn of power, is to kill them​—​and to assure their countrymen that they will oppress them no more. The sight of Libyans standing in line to see Qaddafi’s corpse in a freezer tells us all we need to know about his 42 years in power.

So The Scrapbook agrees that, all things considered, it would have probably been better not to have shot Qaddafi out of hand, but to have turned him over to Libya’s new ruling body or, perhaps, the International Criminal Court in the Hague. Yet The Scrapbook is not shocked that he perished as he did. And lest we forget, he was repeatedly exhorted (by our government, among many) to surrender to some instrument of international law, which would have enabled him to die peacefully in old age. But just as he had since 1969, Colonel Qaddafi made his own choice, and now he has paid the consequences.

Pillar of the Intelligence Community

Mother Jones has published a long article about one of the foreign policy advisers with the Romney campaign, Walid Phares. The Beirut-born Phares has written a number of books in Arabic as well as English-language efforts like the provocatively titled The Confrontation: Winning the War Against Future Jihad. He launched his career as a commentator on counterterrorism and Middle Eastern affairs after emigrating to this country in 1990. As Mother Jones reports, Phares seems to have served before then as a member of the Lebanese Forces, a Christian militia that fought in the Lebanese civil wars, in a psychological warfare unit.

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