In the Middle Ages, people watched public hangings as a form of entertainment, and took their children with them to learn. Today, we are watching the video of Muammar Gaddafi’s death, or searching Google Images for gruesome photos of it. Or, if we are Libyans from the neighbourhood, we take our kids to look at the dictator’s decomposing body. Gaddafi’s death has attracted a lot of attention. It is a fact, and one that represents the end of a war; but it is also a media phenomenon, a sign of sensationalist Western interest.
As part of the Libyan war of liberation (a catchy term), the ‘non-democratic’ murder, for that is what we really are dealing with, has been legitimated by several international leaders: Herman van Rompuy, President of the European Council, talked of “the end of an era of despotism”, while Barack Obama said “the dark shadow of tyranny has been lifted”. All very nice, but somehow not right. Before the revolution, the US was amongst Libya and Gaddafi’s political partners (as was the UK), and the European Council did not then call attention to “despotism”.
Furthermore, this was (is?) a war, and a horrible one at that. As Reuters reports, at the same time as killing Gaddafi in the street, without bringing him to trial, Libyan soldiers also left the decapitated body of one of his guards behind them. Unnecessarily cruel behaviour from the point of view of a war for ‘freedom’ and no better than the way pro-Gaddafi troops have acted and talked.
Without dealing with the comparative engagement in condemnable behaviour, it is necessary to recognise this: in this war, by the end of it, the two sides used methods that were very similar, and all that separated them were perceptions of a “good cause”. This makes Western legitimation very important. But the way Gaddafi died also shows the very real difficulties Libya is likely to face when trying to establish a functioning democracy. Western legitimation seems to be allowing this to be overlooked.
As a media phenomenon, Gaddafi’s death is potentially more revealing of our own Western attitudes than the slightly tribal character in Libya. Media representation is, again, an act of legitimation on one level. But far more dominantly it is sensationalism: we are clearly very interested in the dictator’s death. On the day he died, there was already a photo of his bloodied head circulating online. From Reuters reports to articles in the Daily Mail, the events of his last minutes have been discussed and the video of his demise made freely available. Our newspapers are allowing the voices of soldiers – by now used to violence, and with a justifiable sense of achievement, but without an institutional check – to be heard. Despite the appearance of objectivity this creates, it is in fact a type of “catastrophe tourism” which mixes fear with fascination. Our behaviour is no better than what the ‘non-democratic’ murder. This should raise some questions about the legitimacy of Western influence (I dare not say legitimation) in Libya.