There are those who advocate removing dictators by any means necessary. Others are strict proponents of the rule of law and believe that everyone, dictators included, is entitled to “due process.”
I certainly believe in due process. I also recognize that dictators have a choice, and as the saying goes, “If you live by the sword, you die by the sword.”
That is apparently what happened to Moammar El-Khadhafi after he was captured by Libyan rebels. A gun was applied to his head, and a bullet passed from one temple to the other. The new government said he “died in a crossfire.” You’ve heard of a “Mexican standoff,” a “Russian roulette,” a “Chinese water torture.” Now you have your “Libyan crossfire.”
Early in the Libyan revolution, Khadhafi could have had due process. In fact, he could have had something even better: asylum in Nicaragua or Venezuela for example, with a free pass for his crimes if he stepped down, thereby avoiding the subsequent civil war that killed thousands of his countrymen. He could have enjoyed a nice, fat retirement like Idi Amin (the former Ugandan strongman) and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, both exiled to Saudia Arabia. Like Amin and Ben Ali, Khadhafi would not have deserved a single day of untroubled repose. Such an outcome would itself have been a gross miscarriage of justice, since he would have gone unpunished for his uncountable crimes. But it would have spared his country much bloodshed and suffering.
Such compromises are rather common. They are the essence of the various truth and reconciliation commissions in countries transitioning from authoritarianism to democracy. In post-Pinochet Chile and post-Apartheid South Africa, it was decided that full justice – punishing the guilty – would be sacrificed in order to preserve the fragile social peace of the new democracy. These infant democracies settled for mere truth; an accounting of the crimes of the old regime in return for truthful testimony, while perpetrators were given full amnesty.
Khadhafi could have had such a peace-over-justice compromise. He chose instead to fight to the death. He got what he chose. Some might even say he got exactly what he deserved. That fateful decision to fight and kill is the prism through which we should judge the cruel treatment Khadhafi received in his last hours. It was his refusal to forgo those final crimes, those final bombings of civilians, those final executions of prisoners, that fully justified the rotten way he died. He could have taken a de facto amnesty for all his crimes, but he refused. It was his choice.
Khadhafi’s sorry end has one singular merit: deterrence. Deterrence is one of the four principles of criminal sentencing, the other three being punishment, public safety and rehabilitation. If you are a murderous dictator with a rebellion on your hands, you have a choice: Relinquish power and spare your country further agony, and you can live out your life, like Idi Amin, who was exiled to Saudia Arabia in 1979 and resided there until his death in 2003. Otherwise, you die like Moammar El-Khadhafi, dragged from a stinking sewer pipe on a lonely road, abused, taunted and shot.
It is not pretty, but it is a precedent, one that Syrian tyrant-in-chief Bashar Al-Assad might contemplate. Continue to kill and expect no last-minute offers of asylum. Call it the “Khadhafi Rule” – give it up and go or face death by “Libyan crossfire,” followed by a Libyan state funeral. That’s when you lie in public view for several days half naked in a meat locker. [/private]