Is it better to be loved or to be feared? The vast majority of us would say the first, which is why we live the kinds of lives that admit friends, trust and the ability to plan for the days when we must pass from this world and leave something behind for those we hold most dear. But there are those who would say the second, and for them an entirely different set of rules apply. A rules set so alien to the rest of us that their lives are ultimately governed by a set of principles the rest of us cannot truly fathom, let alone appreciate.
The death of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi this week hopefully will bring to an end the bloody civil war that has wracked Libya these past few months. While some chapters of the so-called “Arab Spring” have been relatively peaceful, many of them have not. This is one of the most violent, and for many observers, there was both an air of inevitability to it, as well as the sense that it was long overdue.
Gadhafi was that rare dictator who had his days as a strongman, earned a serious (and deserved) bruising at the hands of the West, but was then left alone, and he tried to rehabilitate his image abroad, if not at home. To the rest of the world, he renounced state-sponsored terrorism (which he should never have bothered with in the first place), he sought to act as an elder statesman for neighboring African nations, and tried to rebrand his image from one of a self-made dictator to that of a beloved and benevolent father figure for a nation that needed a firm and guiding hand. He was none of these things, however. Robert Young Pelton, editor of The World’s Most Dangerous Places, always seemed to regard Gadhafi as a man who was as ridiculous as he was dangerous, possessing a terrorist’s willingness to murder the innocent to make a point, while also possessing the kind of self-delusion that only a true autocrat can develop.
He was, simply put, a murderous dictator whose crimes became so legion that eventually they compounded among the Libyan people a resentment that turned fear into anger. Once the Libyan people decided they had had enough of Gadhafi’s rule, it was never a question of if they would succeed in toppling him. It was a question of when.
When Gadhafi was finally captured and killed this week, as his fortified hometown of Sirte fell to the National Transitional Council seeking to take control of the country, his final moments were those of humiliation and degradation. according to footage from Al JAzeera, Gadhafi was first shown in rebel hands and alive, though looking pretty far from hale and hearty. Shortly afterwards, he was on the ground, being flipped over, while the camera work was shaky and confused; the viewpoint of a chaotic jubilation as the man who engineered the Lockerbie bombing and terrorized countless Libyans was finally given what he deserved.
It is easy to feel satisfaction at this. Gadhafi was a bad man who did bad things, and who never really seemed to show any contrition for his crimes. When Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, the convicted Lockerbie bomber was set free from prison based on a spurious medical diagnosis of advanced cancer, Gadhafi welcomed al-Megrahi home not as a convicted criminal, but as a returning hero. So much for renouncing terror.
But there is a human tragedy to how Gadhafi lived his life, and it is the kind of thing that I think the life and health world can especially appreciate, as strange as that may seem. Stick with me here.
Back in 2002, Mark Bowden (the fellow who wrote Black Hawk Down) did an incredible article for The Atlantic Monthly entitled “Tales of the Tyrant.” It was a close look at how Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein lived his life. The point that hit me hardest from it was that Hussein could never really enjoy his life the way a normal person might. As a man who used violence to govern so much of his life, the older he got, the more he realized that eventually, he would receive a fate not that different from the one he had doled out to so many others. When you get what you want through violence, you tend to lose it the same way. When what you get is an entire nation, well, the stakes are that much higher, the fate that much more inevitable. But the dictator tries to hold off the end for as long as he can, never accepting that at some point it all must end, and it will probably not end well. Not for the dictator, and not for anybody the dictator cares for.