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Elegy for Qaddafi

Fighters for Libya's interim government rejoice after winning control of the Qaddafi stronghold of Bani Walid. Photo: Magharebia. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Fighters for Libya’s interim government rejoice after winning control of the Qaddafi stronghold of Bani Walid. Photo: Magharebia. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Freedom from Muammar Qaddafi and his family is very good news for Libya; indeed, his demise is good news for the world. He was both evil and effective, which is a worrying combination. He had famously expressed horror at the image of Saddam Hussein in his hole at the end, and sworn that he’d never be in such a situation; one wonders what went through his mind when he was found in a drainpipe, and what he thought in those last minutes as he was apparently dragged along the street by rebels, dying, and then, dead. Like most murderous psychopaths, Qaddafi appears to have imagined himself impervious to the wrath of others; he expected to go on winning even when he had lost. One of the mechanisms by which absolute power corrupts absolutely is that it untethers those who wield it from reality, and Qaddafi inhabited pure fiction. His kind of absolute power is passé, a vestige of pre-modernity; my grandchildren will someday be curious to know what it looked like.

I never met the Leader, but I was a dinner guest at his compound, and spent time with his son Seif-al-Islam, now reportedly captured. Seif was born to unfathomable wealth; wielded considerable power; moved among glamorous people; had endless attendants pandering to him. Now he is, at the very least, completely disenfranchised. I had tea with Seif once, and breakfast with Seif once, and enthusing about the demise of someone you have known even marginally seems inhumane. Of course, Seif himself seemed inhuman, a fiction out of his father’s copious imagination; the weirdness of his life robbed him of any viable hold on truth. Seif opposed his father as a means of winning his father’s approval—becoming a bridge between the Colonel and the West and demonstrating his own courage in the process. Some observers have found his shape-shifting over these last eight months, when he talked about hunting down and killing the rebels, bewildering. I think it is simply evidence that the Oz-like forms he assumed with the Westerners who “knew” him had no more authenticity than anything that followed. There was only a bewildered child hiding behind the curtain.

He dropped his oppositional stance just when it became clear that his father would go down. He essentially jumped out of The Wizard of Oz and landed in Aeschylus on the way to Shakespeare, acting against his own interests in the name of some exalted notion of family honor that his family did not reciprocate. I don’t think Seif held any real beliefs except a childlike conviction that his father was everything. He was no great reformer, but he was also not the evil progenitor of the horrific things that have gone wrong in Libya. He is wanted for crimes against humanity, but his destruction of other human beings is in concert with his own crumbling from within. I am disappointed, in a way, that he has apparently survived, but I am equally sad to think how his life has devolved. He has the pathos more of Hamlet or Prince Hal than of Goneril or Iago.

I was not in touch with friends in Libya during the uprising, because I knew from personal experience how good Qaddafi’s security forces were at monitoring international communications; solicitous correspondence from an anti-regime Western journalist could not be beneficial. When Tripoli fell, I contacted two friends there. They both recounted hair-raising experiences, thanked me for keeping my distance, and spoke of happiness and relief as the end drew nigh. Hasan, a young doctor, described the changes with considerable emotion. “For years, all my life, I saw the Libyan flag,” he said. “It was everywhere. And it was his flag, nothing to do with me. I even disliked seeing it. Now, the new flag is flying all over, and the first time I saw it in Tripoli, I felt it’s my flag, and I saluted it. I can finally imagine how it must feel to have grown up in a country where you could feel that way every time you looked at a flag.” I noted how the sweetness of new freedom differs in degree and kind from that of habitual freedom; I told Hasan to enjoy it for as long as he could.

Then I said that I had written on The New Yorker’s website about how important I thought it was that the U.S. back the uprising, and I asked Hasan what people in Libya made of NATO support. He said, “If you were able to come here right now, we would have a parade for you. People would stop you on the streets and embrace you. The foreign powers did two things right: they let us lead; and they stuck it out when it became clear how long and expensive it was going to be. They got it right, a hundred percent. If you want to know how it feels to be a hero, just come here with your American passport, and you’ll find out.”

It was a poignant conversation for me, because I know that hero’s welcome. In February, 2002, I went to Afghanistan to write for the Times about the rebirth of culture following the fall of the Taliban. After my translator Farouq—also, coincidentally, a young doctor—and I had met with President Hamid Karzai, I commented, a bit flippantly, that I liked the President’s hat. Farouq proposed that we visit the street of the hatmakers to order one. We went; I chose the fur; and two days later we returned to pick it up. Though the U.N. and the military kept staff segregated from Afghans except when conducting official business, journalists were under no such restrictions, and Farouq and I walked back home through a crowded market. He suddenly said, “Why don’t you put on your hat?” I said, “Foreigners going native always look ridiculous. I’ll wear it at home.” But he insisted, and I finally humored him. All around us, people broke into sudden applause. I wasn’t sure what was going on, but one of them made a speech, which Farouq translated. He said, “You are a foreigner, an American, but you respect the Afghan way and you are wearing a perfect Afghan hat; you are one of us, and we are you, too.” Then there was more applause, and several people gave me hugs. The episode was as sudden and alarming as an ambush, but it was full of joy. I returned to America with, perhaps for the first time, a feeling of patriotism for my country as keen as the one Hasan would later describe.

Almost ten years later, that eddy of goodwill in Afghanistan has dried up. Farouq came to visit me in New York this spring, and he spoke of that as “the vanished time of hope.” Everyone I talked to in Afghanistan in 2002 thought that the United States was going to build schools and roads and hospitals—they imagined from our fulsome promises a sort of Marshall Plan. It would have cost a great deal less to institute one than it did to wage another war, in Iraq, and it would have secured us an ally we desperately need. I do not say that we would have been free of opponents in Afghanistan if we had rebuilt the country, but I believe those people who applauded my hat would have carried the flag for us if we had given them what we seemed to promise—if we had applauded back a little bit.

So when I spoke to Hasan, I had a wave of déja entendu. It was almost eerie that it should be another young doctor inviting me to have the exact experience in Tripoli that Farouq had helped me to have in Kabul. Hasan said, “Come any time; you will love the new Libya.” But I know that if I want to have that heady, thrilling feeling of being an ambassador from the angels, I need to book my tickets this week. Our ineptitude in Afghanistan has led to the loss of countless American and Afghan lives; we have planted legions of enemies in the fertile soil of Central Asia. Will we muster the wherewithal to rebuild Libya? Will the American people and the Congress that represents them remember that the Marshall Plan was actually the most successful piece of diplomacy of the modern era? I frankly doubt it. We will instead pursue the short-term economy of neglecting those we have propelled into power. When we fail to shore up their fragile hopes, they, too, will learn to hate us, and the cost will be beyond all reckoning.