Magazine article The New Yorker

King of Kings

Magazine article The New Yorker

King of Kings

Article excerpt

How does it end? The dictator dies, shrivelled and demented, in his bed; he flees the rebels in a private plane; he is caught hiding in a mountain outpost, a drainage pipe, a spider hole. He is tried. He is not tried. He is dragged, bloody and dazed, through the streets, then executed. The humbling comes in myriad forms, but what is revealed is always the same: the technologies of paranoia, the stories of slaughter and fear, the vaults, the national economies employed as personal property, the crazy pets, the prostitutes, the golden fixtures.

Instinctively, when dictators are toppled, we invade their castles and expose their vanities and luxuries--Imelda's shoes, the Shah's jewels. We loot and desecrate, in order to cut them finally, futilely, down to size. After the fall of Baghdad, I visited the gaudiest of Saddam's palaces, examined his tasteless art, his Cuban cigars, his private lakes with their specially bred giant fish, his self-worshipping bronze effigies. I saw thirty years' worth of bodies in secret graves, along with those of Iraqis bound and shot just hours before liberation. In Afghanistan, Mullah Omar, a despot of simpler tastes, left behind little but plastic flowers, a few Land Cruisers with CDs of Islamic music, and an unkempt garden where he had spent hours petting his favorite cow.

During the long uprising in Libya, I toured the wreckage of Muammar Qaddafi's forty-two years in power. There were the usual trappings of solipsistic authority--the armaments and ornaments--but above all there was a void, a sense that his mania had left room in the country for nothing else. Qaddafi was not the worst of the modern world's dictators; the smallness of Libya's population did not provide him with an adequate human canvas to compete with Saddam or Stalin. But few were as vain and capricious, and in recent times only Fidel Castro--who spent almost half a century as Cuba's Jefe Maximo--reigned longer.

When is the right time to leave? Nicolae Ceausescu didn't realize he was hated until, one night in 1989, a crowd of his citizens suddenly began jeering him; four days later, he and his wife faced a firing squad. Qaddafi, likewise, waited until it was too late, continuing to posture and give orotund speeches long after his people had rejected him. In an interview in the first weeks of the revolt, he waved away the journalist Christiane Amanpour's suggestion that he might be unpopular. She didn't understand Libyans, he said: "All my people love me."

For Qaddafi, the end came in stages: first, the uprisings in the east, the successive fights along the coastal road, the bombing by NATO, the sieges of Misurata and Zawiyah; then the fall of Tripoli and, finally, the bloody endgame in the Mediterranean city of Surt, his birthplace. In the days after the rebels took over Tripoli, this August, the city was a surreal and edgy place. The rebels dramatized their triumph by removing the visible symbols of Qaddafi's power wherever they found them. They defiled the Brother Leader's ubiquitous portraits and put up cartoons in which he was portrayed with the body of a rat. They replaced his green flags with the pre-Qaddafi green-red-and-black. They dragged out carpets bearing his image--a common sight in official buildings--to be stomped on in doorways or ruined by traffic. At one of the many Centers for the Study and Research of the Green Book, a large pyramid of green-and-white concrete, the glass door was shattered, the interior trashed. Inside, I found a dozen copies of the Green Book--the repository of Qaddafi's eccentric ideas--floating in a fountain.

The rebels warily took the measure of the city, investigating sealed-off areas and hunting for hidden enemies. Some were looking for the bodies of fallen friends; some wanted to punish those they believed were responsible for war crimes. As their victory became more secure, ordinary citizens began to venture out and to explore the places from which Qaddafi had ruled over them for decades. …

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