Justice Denied: Why Qaddafi's Killing Was Wrong

If the Libyans want to be part of the democratic world, they will have to hold such behavior to account

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Frame grab of a man purported to be former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi / Reuters

The gruesome images we saw last week when Muammar el-Qaddafi met his foes for the final time, was dragged out of a drain pipe, and flung against the hood of an armored truck were jarring. The former strongman was a bleeding, staggering mess, and he found no quarter with his captors. Sometime between the moment when a shaky cell-phone video recorded him reeling, as fighters spat and beat him about the head, and when another even more disorienting one displayed his lifeless body on the ground, someone put a bullet in the back of his head.

There was chaos in those scenes: fighters jostling to get their hands on the man who was once untouchable, shouts of "Allahu Akbar" deafening ears, and celebratory gunfire. There was also blood thirst.

We've seen this all before, whether it was Iraqis rigging charred bodies onto a bridge in Falluja in 2004, or Palestinians lynching three Israeli reservists who went down the wrong road in Ramallah in 2000, or French crowds impaling heads on spikes during the Reign of Terror in 1792.

It's easy to dismiss something like this as mob violence: Once one person discovers he can commit a crime with impunity, others follow, upping the ante until suddenly all sense and control is gone. When I arrived in Ramallah during an Israeli rocket attack on the site of the lynching, I hid as an unrepentant crowd marched past me and shouted in defiant response. I wondered at what point conscience would interrupt their chanting: When does a person realize he has done something he knows innately to be wrong? I watched my shaken Palestinian colleagues sink their heads into their hands as they tried to fathom how things turned so ugly that they, too, were beaten and their cameras snatched away. On a dime, an angry scene turned vicious. Everyone--and no one--was to blame for what transpired.

Some people have crowed at the images from Surt, calling it justice. They say that the tyrant got the ending he deserved, that he died as he had ruled, with brutal force.

Yet we know that's not true. We've watched ousted Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak on trial from his hospital bed--an image that has gripped not only Egyptians but also people around the world (including fellow dictators). The trial of Saddam Hussein was a farce from start to jolting end, yet these two exercises in "due process" allowed their victims to face their former tormentors. Qaddafi will never be held to account. He'll never have to obey a court's jurisdiction, he'll never see the inside of a cell, and he'll never witness how Libya can triumph without him.

Instead he was killed by men with their guns, in a pack scene that bordered on barbarity. By depriving Qaddafi and his many victims of justice, those fighters in Surt raised fears that those who were fighting to depose him might be as ruthless as the person they were determined to replace.

It speaks volumes about the intentions of a fledgling leadership when it promises to try a hated ruler with as much fairness and dignity as the people can stomach. And on this point, Libya's Transitional National Council failed. Qaddafi's killing raises uncomfortable questions about how much control the council has over its forces. Initial claims by the council that Qaddafi was killed in an airstrike on his convoy were quickly changed once those cell-phone videos made it onto the Internet and television. Then, later speculation by one official that a loyalist could have killed Qaddafi were further undone when footage of the presumed killer being embraced and congratulated made it onto the Internet.

After an autopsy, Qaddafi's still-bloodied corpse was laid beside that of his son Mutassim in a refrigerator in Misrata for several days for everyone to see. It was a blatant violation of Islamic law that requires washing of the corpse and burial before sunset--this at the same time that the council announced it would use Islam's sharia as the foundation for its new laws.

Qaddafi's body was finally handed over to his family for burial this week, while across Libya's battlefields, hastily dug graves were being unearthed, revealing executed fighters from both sides.

Some look to Libya's intensely tribal culture as a way of explaining elements of behavior not acceptable in civilized societies. So it is a harsh disappointment when people behave exactly as you expect them to. But if the Libyans want to be part of the democratic world, they will have to hold such behavior to account. The United Nations wants an investigation into how Qaddafi was killed. President Obama has called on the council to begin a process of national reconciliation and to unify the armed groups.

Casca was the first to stab an unarmed Julius Caesar, inspiring his fellow Romans to peck him to death with their daggers. In Shakespeare's account of the incident, Marcus Brutus later said to them: "Do so, and let no man abide this deed but we the doers." For Libya's new leaders, this age has no secrets. The whole world is watching to see what they do next.