Two Shots: The Court and the Gun

A tattered banner depicting Muammar Qaddafi hangs from a building during a street battle in the center of the city on October 12, 2011 in Sirte, Libya. (Majid Saeedi/Getty Images)

Two shots. One to the head and another to the chest. That was the fate of a man who had ruled Libya for some 40 summers. Splayed on the back of a truck being used as a makeshift ambulance, his clothes bloodied, his body limp, he was ushered through the hands of crowds of people who defiantly stood up to his egomaniacal tendencies, his erratic eccentricities and his cadre of henchmen, mercenaries and benefactors who could shelter him no longer from the fate of two bullets, and a barrage of NATO bombs.

The images of a dying Brother Leader Muammar Qadhafi—filmed through the lens of a cameraman, the cameraphones of untold numbers of rebel fighters—was a spectacle much like the golden gun rifled off him, much like the tuktuk once used as a soapbox for incoherent missives against his detractors, and eerily like the golden busts from his grand palaces kicked in the dust and trampled underneath resistance boots.

The fate of Qadhafi was somewhat in doubt. The Colonel had always insisted he would die fighting the ‘rats’ who were praying for his capture and downfall. The fall of Tripoli produced no endgame, and the fall of Sirte, produced a dazed, messy, Qadhafi, wiping blood from his face and quoted as asking a rebel “what have I done to you?” as he was put onto the hood of a truck and his zip-up, high-heeled, black boots stripped off him.

[inset_left]The fall of Tripoli produced no endgame, and the fall of Sirte, produced a dazed, messy, Qadhafi, wiping blood from his face and quoted as asking a rebel “what have I done to you?” as he was put onto the hood of a truck and his zip-up, high-heeled, black boots stripped off him.[/inset_left] These images and the numerous metaphors and analogies used as talking points on news shows, social networks and the headlines of countless newspapers, undoubtedly signal the dethroning of an almost mythical figure for Libyans, but do the images of a deposed leader, whether hanged by the hangman’s noose, locked behind the cage of a defendants corner facing a judge, or boarding a presidential plane to escape the rule of law and the throngs of protestors for a safehaven, signal true catharsis and an undoubtedly new chapter of the nation-states they ruled scrupulously?

Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, his fate and his capture, have been used in the past 48 hours as an example for attempting to explain the essence of a liberating feeling Libyans must have after the images of their dictator graced screens, cellphones and broadsheets. Never mind that Hussein was captured by an occupying force, tried before a court, and allowed to display a final act of defiance, refusing to be addressed as anything other than the president of Iraq. The similarities, other than the two occupying roles as dictators and being rustled out of holes—a hole in the ground and a sewer hole—stop there.

Iraqis today, reeling from an occupation that has beleaguered their population for the past eight years and the images of the corpse of a Baathist stalwart Saddam, are quick to inform you that the death of one Saddam has only produced “thousands of mini-Saddams” controlling their neighborhoods, towns and cities and ultimately, leaving an indelible mark of a ruthless dictator, their consciousness and socio-political etiquette.

When Saddam became relegated to the past, or served as a the backdrop for which Iraqis viewed political progress, it was not his trial and his fate that pushed them to move forward, it was the fear of random neighborhood cleansing, bombings targeting Iraqi security forces, and the denigration of freedoms that eroded once those elected ascended to power.

The omnipresence of dictators is transferred from their life unto their death, their freedom unto their capture. Hosni Mubarak, his very-much-alive presence in a courtroom, hustled in on a stretcher, in white hospital robes over his civilian clothes, while still wearing his jewelry, serves as another reminder in the process of perceived catharsis of a population and the limits of future political progress.  Behind a defendant’s cage, sheltered from the camera by his sons who are relegated to a similar fate as their father, Mubarak did not challenge his judge, instead his sons, his military and his network of cronies running some 1,300 local councils aimed to accomplish that task for him. The judiciary seen as a sham and an extension of the state, the media seen as a leech to power, and “his” people, or rather lawyers clamoring to defend the rights of a man who took no account of the rights of others, reopened wounds, rather than allowed them to heal.

His sons flipped the bird to victims and cameras, his supporters attacked those who wished to see justice and his military occupied Cairo, the Suez and points in between, to dampen the mood of progress and catharsis.

Whether it was indeed the fate of a trial and a damning verdict, the sight of a leader behind a cage, or the body of the Brother Leader shuttled on the hoods and beds of rebel trucks, these nations were told that the healing process of rebuilding a society was underway. Progress was a road that travelled downhill. The contrasts in fate, death in the midst of battle, execution at the hands of jeering countrymen and trials that seemed fixed for the political futures of those still on the scene, were the contexts founded in each of these men’s countries. Whether it was the demographics of their populations, the unbundling of their laws, the structures founded under their rule, all of it was thrown out to signal healing once they had been captured, killed or arrested.

The two bullets may have ended the life of the dictator but his legacy, his institutions, his mark on a populace, whether governed through an extrajudicial assassination, a show trial, lives on.  Bullets, judges robes and bombs can remove a face, a personality, maybe even a political party, but the lives of those touched in their wake, left to govern and eke out a future, will take more than a court room proceeding or the lifeless body of a dictator.

Their ideas cannot be shot in the chest and the head. Their structures cannot be put on trial. Their fates, whether governed by rule of law or the battlefield, are ultimately the same, yet completely dissimilar.

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