Celebrating the Death of a Devil?

21 Oct 2011

Yesterday, Colonel Gaddafi was killed in his final stronghold of Sirte.  Details of his death have been confused, with initial claims of his capture slowly being replaced by suggestions that rebels had shot him in the head, and later reports of his demise in the crossfire of battle.  What is known is that Gaddafi’s final moments before capture were spent in a location and manner to which he would certainly not have been accustomed: ‘cowering’ inside an ‘irrigation’ channel.

Gaddafi’s record of human rights abuses at home and criminality abroad is certainly not contested here.  Instead the question that I would like to pose concerns the normative dimensions of NATO policy: Is NATO responsible for the death of Gaddafi, and is that responsibility morally acceptable?  On the issue of responsibility, it is safe to suggest that NATO’s role has been essential to the success of the rebel cause generally and the killing of Gaddafi specifically.  French air strikes on Gaddafi’s final loyalist supporters enabled the firefight that has apparently led to his death.  Make no mistake; as in Afghanistan and Iraq, this was a policy of regime change.  Unlike the ‘Afghan model’, let down in the battle of Tora Bora where bin Laden made his escape to Pakistan, this time coalition efforts to support local fighters appear to have worked: they have got their man.  The question remains, however: is this right?

Following bin Laden’s death, some Europeans were quick to remind jubilant Americans of Martin Luther King’s words: I will not rejoice in the killing of another human, not even an enemy.  Such sentiments have been less forthcoming this time around.  Why?  The perception that Libyans killed a hated, oppressive Libyan is important.  But the role of Coalition forces cannot and should not be underplayed or forgotten.  This was very clearly a war of choice for the US, UK and France.  The possibility of the intervention in the first place, like the outpouring of public statements on Gaddafi’s end, centre on his identity as an evil villain.  Prime Minister Cameron joked last night that we could ‘celebrate the death of a devil’.  In May, I suggested that Americans were ‘celebrating the death of evil’, as it had been portrayed in the language of President Bush’s foreign policy speeches and embodied in the satanic figure of Osama bin Laden.  Once again we see that James Der Derian is correct: people go to war because of how they see, imagine, picture, perceive and speak of others.  Language matters.  And in this instance, once again, it will help to frame debates on the morality, legality and impact of Colonel Gaddafi’s killing, as well as the broader intervention.

Despite Prime Minister Cameron’s claims to the contrary, we should not be ‘celebrating the death of a devil’.  The devil is in the detail.  And the details reveal that recent British governments have embraced Colonel Gaddafi as a friend and ally.  They reveal the essential role that Britain, alongside NATO allies, has played in Gaddafi’s killing.  And, stitched together, they reveal an inconsistent and often hypocritical approach to intervention in Africa and the Middle East.  British Prime Ministers have gone from embracing Gaddafi, via calls for the international community to ‘manage’ the uprisings of the Arab Spring to ensure ‘proper democracy’, to welcoming the death of another human being.  Such actions do not suggest the ‘management’ of ‘proper democracy’, but rather the sad fact that imperial condescension and interventionism remain intimately linked.  Cameron would do well to heed Nick Robinson’s warnings that Blair too experienced early military victories.  Developing a taste for intervention rarely works out well.


David Cameron has been interviewed on the death of Gaddafi this morning. He argued that “on a human level” Gaddafi’s possible execution by rebel fighters is wrong, but “how many times has he allowed that fate to be met by others”.  First, however abhorrent his crimes, Gaddafi remained a human.  Second, suggesting that by breaking the law you are literally out-lawed – beyond the protections of the law because you have broken it – returns us to notions of frontier justice far removed from the rule of law one might be expect the ‘managers’ of ‘proper democracy’ to defend.  Whatever his actions, and whatever satanic identity he has been afforded, Gaddafi’s life and its end should not be positioned as existing outside of the law and of moral considerations.

At the time of press, the cause and circumstances of Gaddafi’s death remain unclear.

For further reading, see Jason Ralph’s thoughts at: http://theamericanexception.wordpress.com/ Jason will give a talk on intervention at Cii on the 9th of November.