NEW YORK – Many would say that Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi got what he deserved. Live by the sword, die by the sword. The Libyan tyrant happily allowed his opponents, or anyone who annoyed him, to be tortured or killed. So it seems only right that he died with summary violence. After being hunted down in a dirty drainpipe, he was displayed like a bloody trophy before being battered and shot by a lynch mob. And it happened in his hometown of Sirte. This is primitive justice, to be sure, but how else could justice be done to a mass murderer?
Yet there is something deeply disturbing about a lynching, regardless of the victim. Even as cheering crowds in Sirte and Tripoli were rejoicing at the despot’s death, others voiced doubts over the manner of his humiliating end. The French public intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy, who had promoted the Libyan revolution with a strong dose of narcissistic showmanship, wrote that the lynching of Qaddafi “polluted the essential morality” of the people’s rebellion.
One might quibble with this description. As in all violent revolutions, the morality of the dictator’s opponents was never entirely without blemish. The rebels, who reduced Qaddafi’s birthplace to rubble, were in some cases as ruthlessly brutal as the men against whom they were fighting.
But there is something else wrong with Lévy’s critique. To talk about the pollution of morality is to miss the point. The problem with rough justice, in the form of revenge, is not that it is immoral. Many of us can see the appeal of the Old Testament principle of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” We want a person who made others suffer to suffer as well, preferably in equal measure. Justice almost always contains an element of revenge.
The problem with revenge, however, is that it provokes further revenge, setting in motion a cycle of violence and counter-violence – the culture of vendetta. And vendetta is by definition not so much immoral, or even unjust, as it is lawless. It thrives in societies that are not bound by laws that apply equally to all, or even by any formal laws at all. Codes of honor are not the same as the rule of law. While the rule of law does not necessarily satisfy everyone’s sense of justice, it does stop the cycle of violent retribution.
The ancient Greeks understood this well. The greatest play about the tension between law and justice is Aeschylus’s The Eumenides, a story of murder and vengeance in which the furies represent justice. They drive people to avenge terrible misdeeds, saying: “We claim we represent true justice….Blood avengers, always in pursuit, we chase them to the end.” So it is that the furies help Orestes to wreak vengeance on his mother, Clytaemnestra, for killing his father, Agamemnon. Orestes murders her, thus continuing the cycle of violence.
Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom and patron of Athens, decides that only a fair trial, with a jury of twelve men, can pacify the furies and restore peace. But trials are rarely perfect. In this case, the jury is evenly divided, forcing Athena to give the verdict, which is to acquit Orestes. This may not have served the rough justice demanded by the furies, but it established the rule of law, which civilized Athens.
To be sure, Athenian democracy was not much like our modern democracies, nor is ancient Athens much like Tripoli today. Even so, The Eumenides holds an important lesson that remains valid: violence, unchecked by law, will not end. Revolutions born in bloodshed almost always create more bad blood. This was true 2,500 years ago, and it is true today.
Few people have understood this better than the Polish democratic activist and thinker Adam Michnik, one of the heroes who in the 1980’s helped to end the Communist dictatorship in his country. While other Poles demanded vengeful rough justice against the Communist rulers and their accomplices, Michnik counseled negotiation, compromise, and reconciliation, even with former oppressors.
Michnik admits that all revolutions are incomplete in the sense that not all sinners are punished, and not all virtuous people are rewarded. But, he says, that outcome would mean further violence: “The compensation for suffered harm invariably brings new harm, often more cruel than what came before.”
This is why Qaddafi’s lynching party is a dangerous omen for Libya. It would have been far better if he had been handed over alive to be judged in a court of law. A criminal trial in Libya might have been difficult. A 42-year dictatorship does not exactly provide fertile ground for the learning and experience needed to create an impartial court. And it is probably impossible for a former dictator’s victims to judge him without prejudice. That is precisely why the International Criminal Court in The Hague was established.
Putting Qaddafi on trial probably would not have satisfied every Libyan’s feeling of injustice, but it might have helped to instill in Libyans greater respect for the rule of law. Perhaps a trial of Qaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, will have this effect. If so, standing trial in The Hague would be the best service he could render to his country.
Ian Buruma is Professor of Democracy and Human Rights at Bard College, and the author of Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011.