Gaddafi's Body Of Evidence
This past July, my friend and I took a tour of Fes, Morocco, in which we learned all about the ancient city’s history while purchasing the carpets and crockery that our lives were apparently incomplete without. This was much to the delight of our lovely guide, Nadia, who just happened to be old friends with all the shop owners. Nadia took us to the Jewish Quarter, where she told us how in the Middle Ages, when the Sultan needed to quash uprisings in the city or put down other troublemakers, he had them killed and ordered the Jews to salt their heads so that they could be preserved for public display.
Not only is this story the single most effective way to get young Jews interested in their heritage, it’s another reminder of how throughout human history, the ultimate symbol of closure in conflict has been publicly available visual evidence of the lifeless face of the enemy.
Most of us are familiar with the execution of the Scottish knight and independence fighter William Wallace, whose head was dipped in tar and then displayed on London Bridge. It is kind of a shame that Mel Gibson did not more faithfully reenact Wallace’s actual demise. London Bridge actually had quite an A-list collection of headliners (sorry) back in the day.
When the California Gold Rush-era con man Joaquin Murrieta was killed, authorities turned it into a road show, preserving his head in a jar of alcohol and displaying it in cities around the state.
Notwithstanding the impending arrival of Halloween, giving me an excuse to be somewhat gory, why am I talking about decapitation?
“The head tells all,” wrote historian Regina Janes in her 1991 essay, “Beheadings." “It identifies itself, and it speaks, to the extent of its previous owner’s ability, a silent narrative of fallen greatness and mastery transferred.”
Certainty of a specific person’s identity + certainty of death = certainty of that specific person being dead. The head on a stake was the earliest definitive way to show this, but even with our technological advances, that basic logical construct still applies today.
In his October 23 essay, Ted Anthony of the Associated Press recounted certain despots throughout modern history who met an unceremonious and violent end, saying that “what's different today is that sometimes the world gets to see it.”
The concept does not seem to be different at all; only the medium and ease of dissemination has changed.
King Edward I could not take an iPhone picture of dead William Wallace and tweet it @England #treason, so he had to publicly display the detached head to, in the words of many an NFL official, provide “indisputable visual evidence” that William Wallace was indeed dead.
However, much of the world has seen the death photos of villains from Dillinger and the Ceausescus to Zarqawi and the Hussein bros. These images, showing the combination of their identifiable facial features (of course further confirmed through dental records, DNA, etc.) and mortal wounds, when posted on a website or mass-emailed, have the same effect as William Wallace’s head adorning London Bridge or Joaquin Murrieta’s head in a mason jar in Stockton.
The digitized death image is simply the evolutionary decapitated head.
Last week’s capture and subsequent death of Muammar Gaddafi in Sirte by rebel forces was generally accepted to be the conclusion of the military phase of the 2011 Libyan civil war.
There has been a fair amount of controversy over this video showing Gaddafi's last moments. He is clearly alive at the beginning, shots are fired, and he then reappears, looking lifeless. Death photos soon emerged as well.
The general reaction, even from relatively liberal groups, did not exactly mourn his manner of death nor lament the fact that he was not captured alive and put on trial. Gaddafi had directed an extremely repressive regime that for over 40 years, spied on and often violently persecuted its citizens while pocketing billions of dollars from exploiting the highly lucrative oil and gas fields beneath Libya.
The sheer magnitude of hate for Gaddafi and all that he represented, the type of hate that led ordinary Libyans to risk their personal safety and that of their family members to revolt against the regime, could not be expected to moderate itself in the heat of battle. It is fairly obvious that the only way Gaddafi would have been taken alive would be if he surrendered to NATO or other international forces.
It is no mystery why he was killed, but what is interesting to me is how quickly and prominently the video camera appeared on the scene. Given the adrenaline pumping through their veins as they carried Gaddafi from his drainpipe hideout, the fact that these rebel forces had the presence of mind to not only film the capture, but also in making sure to get plenty of close-up shots of Gaddafi’s face, reveals a lot about their priorities.
President Obama, when asked why he had not released Osama bin Laden’s death photo on a “60 Minutes” appearance soon after the operation that killed him, responded, “we don't trot out this stuff as trophies.”
Is it really a trophy though, or is it more of a receipt? A trophy is for show, while a receipt is for proof.
As much as our liberal democratic culture has ingrained in us the universal right to a trial, this is easy for us to say in the relative order of the United States of America. Gaddafi was a man who co-opted the entire regulatory and legal regime of the country for four decades. I completely understand the reluctance of Libyan’s to trust any court of law, no matter what jurisdiction, to effectively convict a master manipulator.
The Libyan people did not need to just kill Gaddafi; they needed indisputable visual evidence, the proverbial head on a stake that is the death image. They needed tangible evidence that Gaddafi’s mastery over Libya was transferred to them. They needed their receipt.
Reach Matt Pressberg here.