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Gaddafi's Execution and the
Culture of Lynching

November 5, 2011 by Xavier O'Brien

On October 18th, the capture and murder of Libyan head of state, Muammar Gaddafi, and his son Mutassim sent the people of Tripoli, Western political figures, and the mainstream media into an orgy of praise. Many commentators heralded this killing as a new beginning for a nation that has long suffered under the oppressive rule of an unaccountable tyrant. This unquestioning acceptance of arbitrary force on the part of NATO and the Libyan opposition sharply undermines any possibility for the people of Libya to extricate themselves from the history of suffering that they have had to endure for over three decades. Furthermore, the current discussion about his gruesome killing makes a mockery of basic principles of international law.

As expected, the chief violator of legal norms, Barack Obama, lauded the operation as an illustration of what “collective action can achieve in the 21st century.” Indeed, this military intervention, along with the killing of Osama Bin Laden, Anwar Awlaki, his 16 year old son Abdulrahman, and Samir Khan, has resolutely shown that the Obama administration has aggressively pursued an illegal policy of assassination under the rubric of “counter terrorism."

The legal precedent that forbids such acts of lawlessness is so vast that it’s utterly shameful that I even have to write about it. Take for example Article 23(b) of the 1907 Hague Convention, which states that it is “especially forbidden” to “kill or wound treacherously individuals belonging to [a] hostile nation or army,” or Article 37 and 44 of the 1949 Geneva Conventions advocating, in the words of Article 37, that persons confined shall be “humanely treated.” This massive record of presidential nose rags, known as international law by everyone outside of raving psychopaths, has been routinely and systematically ignored by not only the Obama administration, but also by virtually all of the “strategic allies” that the US has embraced, including Gaddafi himself.

How strangely fitting it is that US Senators like John McCain praised the killing of Gaddafi as a “victory for the president,” and lauded it as a “great win for the US military.” These remarks stand in stark contrast to recently disclosed Wikileaks documents which show that Senator McCain “promised to provide arms and military gear to Col. Muammar Gaddafi during a meeting in August 2009.” This particular cable went on to note that “Libya [is] an important ally in the war on terrorism, noting that common enemies sometimes make better friends.” For a more in-depth treatment of this chronicle of crime, I highly suggest readers check out an article written by Binghamton University professor Herbert Bix titled War Crimes, Drone Strikes, and Double Standards: Obama’s Assassination of U.S. Citizens and a report released by Amnesty International calling on the TNC “to make public information about how Colonel al-Gaddafi died.”

But apart from this mountain of legal and documentary evidence that could be used to criminally prosecute the Obama administration and its associates, there is a deeper cultural element to this recent killing that, unfortunately, has not been emphasized as forcefully as the gruesome photographs and euphoric celebrations. To be precise, the string of extrajudicial killings that have been carried out this year, starting with that of Osama Bin Laden, has made it horrifically clear that the culture we inhabit is one dominated by the ideology of the lynch mob. In the words of University of West Florida professor James McGovern, lynching is qualitatively distinct from other forms of murder as it requires “community approval, either explicit, in the form of general participation by the local citizenry, or implicit, in the form of acquittal of the killers without a trial.” McGovern goes on to presciently state that “approbation by the community is usually confirmed by such public activities of the lynch mob as a manhunt and chase and display of the victim's body in a conspicuous place.”

This aspect of McGovern’s definition is especially poignant in lieu of a recent video broadcast on Al Jazeera showing scores of Libyans, adults and children, lining up outside a storage room to view the corpse of the deposed ruler. In the words of Ed Husain, a Senior Fellow and Middle Eastern expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, “the barbaric manner in which . . . the killers surrounded his blood-soaked corpse does not bode well for the emergence of a democratic culture inside Libya soon.” Certainly, the white racists who hung Claude Neal from a tree in Jackson County, Florida in 1934 would be pleased to see what kind of culture we have become.

While it’s uncontroversially known that Muammar Gaddafi was behind some of the most grievous human rights violations of post-war history, the manner in which he was killed, apart from serving as a defeat of his regime, unwittingly reinforced some of the most backward and destructive characteristics of his rule. It reinforced the poisonous principle famously articulated by Thrasymachus that “might makes right,” that the rule of guns invariably overrides the rule of law, and that baseline moral principles of compassion should be recklessly subordinated to Spencerian myths of “survival of the fittest.” Combined, these cultural maladies have the power to push the whole of humanity over the precipice.

Cuban revolutionary -- or, as we in America like to call him, “dictator” -- Fidel Castro once wrote in his famous defense of armed resistance to colonial domination, "History Will Absolve Me," that “in war, armies that murder prisoners have always earned the contempt and abomination of the entire world. Such cowardice has no justification, even in the case where national territory is invaded by foreign troops.” Castro goes on to quote a “South American liberator” as saying: “Not even the strictest military obedience may turn a soldier’s sword into that of an executioner.”

If NATO, the US, the UK, Italy, and the UN want to avoid the “contempt and abomination of the entire world,” they should heed the call of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and all other conscientious people who categorically reject the abuse of power, the disregard for law, and the unjustifiable culture of lynching.

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