A Moral Tipping Point

Newsweek, October 31, 2011 | Go to article overview

A Moral Tipping Point


Byline: Translated from the French by Steven B. Kennedy.

Bernard-Henri Levy on the unsettling implications of Gaddafi's gory end.

Those Images of his corpse. That face, still alive but bloodied, hounded, and taunted. That bare head--suddenly and oddly bare! We were used to seeing him in turbans, and there was something poignant in the denuding that renders this criminal strangely pitiable.

You can say that the man was a monster. You can replay again and again the scenes that for eight months have haunted the friends of free Libya--the images of mass executions, torture, the hangings of April 7, the prisoners who were sort of buried alive until released from their prisons by the revolution--these and so many other victims of the dictatorship. You can point out that Gaddafi had a hundred chances to negotiate, to stop it all, to save himself, and that, if he elected not to do so, if he preferred to bleed his people to the very end, he chose his fate knowingly. You can observe that the West is not necessarily in the best position to teach the rest of the world lessons about revolutionary mercy. After all, don't the Europeans still have on their consciences the massacres of September 1792 in France? What about the women whose heads were shaved after the liberation of Paris? Mussolini hung by his feet and abused? The Ceausescus slaughtered like old cattle?

I don't buy it. I may be an incurable romantic, or what amounts to the same thing, an unreconstructed opponent of the absolute evil that I believe the death penalty to be. There is, in the spectacle of Gaddafi's lynching, something revolting. Worse, I fear that it will pollute the essential morality of an insurrection that had been, up to that point, almost exemplary. And anyone who knows something about revolutionary history knows that this could be the tipping point at which a democratic uprising begins to degenerate into its opposite.

I said as much by telephone to some of my friends in the National Transitional Council. I said it to Mustafa el-Sagizli, the leader of the fighters in Cyrenaica, who called me to share his joy after the liberation of Sirte. And then, later on Thursday, to the commander of the regiment that included the unruly elements that struck and killed Gaddafi. …

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