For the next couple of days, expect the 48-hour news cycle to spin the life and times of Muammar Gaddafi every which way but loose. Most of them will start off in a Bedouin tent in 1942 and end up somewhere in the desert between ruthless and brutal. It will be a journalistic tour de force on how many times they can say “evil” without actually saying it or repeating themselves. However, assuming (for argument’s sake) that there is an afterlife for such people, does Gaddafi get to sit at the head table? It’s hard to know, but personally I don’t think so.
It’s true, Gaddafi wasn’t the guy you’d ask to pick up your kids after school while you go to the dentist, but in actual fact, as evildoers go, he wasn’t exactly Top of the Pops. Basically, he was just a pain in the ass. He spent most of his dictatorship spouting off and doing stupid stuff like funding every European terrorist who showed up with a sob story. Every once in a while, he’d push the envelope a little too much and stick his nose into the terrorist business for real. In 1986, he did it once too often and Ronnie Reagan launched his F111s and slapped the snot out of him. After that he calmed down considerably until Reagan left the White House. In 1988, he tried it again with the Lockerbie bombing, and when nothing happened, he got his groove back. Then in 2003, when George W. told the 7th Cavalry to set their GPS for Baghdad, he finally saw the writing on the wall, got out of the nuisance business real fast and became downright cordial. Just ask Tony Blair.
Of course, I don’t know much about his internal nastiness. Like most people, I’m taking it on faith that he was indeed brutal and ruthless. After all, the deserts of Libya are huge, and if somebody’s screaming in the back of beyond, it won’t necessarily get reported in the New York Times. Besides, when you’re a dictator sitting on an enormous pool of oil, international criticism is usually limited to what kind of funny clothes you wore to the UN Afterparty. Oil has a way of sliding the moral scale. I’m sure Gaddafi was a bad man to cross, though. It’s no coincidence that, in forty years, the opposition to his rule amounted to nobody. Even Libyan expatriates were scared skinny of the guy, mainly because he tended to shoot at them whenever he got the opportunity. In 1984, his “revolutionary committees” took a few potshots at local demonstrators in front of the London embassy, and a police constable, Yvonne Fletcher, was killed. Yet, to be fair, I imagine Caligula killed more people while Agrippina the Younger was heating up the pasta than Gaddafi ever thought of murdering.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not trying to let Gaddafi off the hook. The fact remains that he was a cruel tyrant who repressed the soul of his people for forty plus years. His rule resulted in numerous deaths and wanton destruction — both in Libya and around the world. He ruined the lives of thousands of people without a moment’s regret, and despite the millions paid in compensation with no evidence of remorse.
However, as we figuratively and literally drag him through the gutter, let’s remember he’s just the flavour of the week. He’s the name we know: the one who’s on the front page. There have been plenty more where he came from. Some of us are old enough to remember Ceausescu’s handiwork in Romania or Erich Honecker in the GDR. Even as we speak, there are rulers in this world who could have taught Gaddafi lessons in Repression. We may have heard of Kim Jong-il but do we even know the names of the rulers of Myanmar? Or Turkmenistan? And then there’s good old what’s-his-name in Damascus who’s been shooting dissidents as if there’s a bounty on them (and I’m not even sure that there isn’t one.)
In the great scheme of things, Muammar Gaddafi was nothing special. Without oil, he was nothing more than a petty dictator with an odd taste in clothes and a big hat. Let’s not waste too much time nor too many superlatives on the guy. I’ll venture to guess that in less than a decade he’ll be swallowed up by the sands of Libya and very few of us will even remember his name.