Killing Qaddafi: even when they’re right, the Russians are wrong

Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov

The Russian Foreign Ministry managed to get on both sides of an issue yesterday by saying that it was wrong to kill Moammar Qaddafi.

They’re right. Sort of.

But first, let’s just stipulate that Moscow would find something bad to say if NATO cured cancer. (“Where we will put all those people who were supposed to die? Russia has no jobs for them! NATO is reckless!”) NATO didn’t actually take out Qaddafi, but they’re getting partial blame (or credit) because NATO assets attacked his convoy.

Anyway, according to Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov:

“We need to analyze NATO actions in terms of their compliance with international law. Under international law, international humanitarian rules are in force during armed conflicts – and what is taking place in Libya is an armed conflict. These rules are enshrined in the Geneva Conventions of the 1940s.”

He also added, in other remarks, that there should be an investigation into Qaddafi’s death, noting:

“We have to lean on facts and international laws. They say that a captured participant of an armed conflict should be treated in a certain way. And in any case, a prisoner of war should not be killed.”

(The United Nations has followed suit, and offered a forensic team to examine Qaddafi.)

Hmm. I assume when Foreign Minister Lavrov says “they say,” he means the Europeans who codified most of the the laws of armed conflict back at the turn of the 19th century. His reference to the Geneva Conventions is to the Third Convention of 1949, which governs conflicts other than those between states.

Russia, of course, has always been a huge supporter of human rights in armed conflicts; that probably explains those big Chechen POW camps the Russians have been so considerately maintaining since the 1990s.

Grozny, Chechnya (1996) by James Nachtwey

I’m joking, of course. There aren’t any internationally supervised Chechen POW camps — and precious few Chechen POWs.

Don’t get me wrong: the Chechen rebels have acted like wild animals since the fall of the USSR. But getting a lecture from the Russians about the rules of war is so ridiculous that it is, to use a old Russian phrase, beneath all possible criticism. Some years ago I was in Moscow, and I watched a news report from Chechnya in which a Russian general gleefully recalled how after a group of Chechen rebels were duped into walking into an ambush, “we slaughtered them like rabbits.” The Russian military, like its Soviet predecessor, has never much concerned itself with trifles like Geneva.

But wait, Lavrov might say. Chechnya is an internal concern of the Russian Federation, and therefore it is a domestic matter not subject to Geneva and other international agreements. Russian law takes precedence, and besides, a national emergency, like secession, isn’t subject to those agreements. The Russian military might be acting like brutes, but that’s no more our business than the behavior of the LAPD is Russia’s affair.

And he’d have a point. But that’s just as true of Libya as it is of Chechnya. Qaddafi wasn’t captured by NATO, he was torn to pieces by his own people. And that’s just plain wrong, too. Whether it’s “illegal” in international law, I don’t know, but it hardly seems the Russian Federation’s business, either.

The Russians are right, in principle: POWs are, in international custom and law, hors de combat and must be treated as equivalent to having surrendered. They can’t be harmed; in fact, they have to be cared for and reported as in custody by the detaining power to the enemy and to international organizations. Shooting the wounded and the captured is not only contrary to the law, it does violence to our own identity as human beings.

And without his hairpiece -- the final insult.

Qaddafi wasn’t a POW, of course. His resistance over the past weeks cost a lot of people their lives. He was (it appears) executed on the spot by other Libyans, not foreign troops.

None of that necessarily means he should have been killed.

Those readers and students who know me know that I am opposed to the death penalty. I’m conflicted, however, about dictators and lunatics who refuse to give up no matter how lost their cause. There was no way, really, to capture Bin Laden without more deaths down the line. Saddam Hussein’s boys decided to go out with guns blazing. Qaddafi was getting people killed every day, and would have kept on calling for more violence had he lived.

It might also be reasonably argued that Qaddafi sealed his own fate when he created a situation where Libyans would not stop killing Libyans until he was dead. If that’s the case, then no one is responsible for Qaddafi’s death more than Moammar Qaddafi.

Justice done -- but the wrong way.

I’m sure at least some people will think this is something like the execution of Saddam Hussein, but it’s only superficially similar.  Hussein was captured, and out of the fight. He was put on trial, and then handed over for a disgraceful execution that managed to make one of the worst human beings in modern history look relatively dignified for a moment while being taunted by guys hiding behind masks.

There was an Iraqi official there who, to his credit, called for treating the condemned man with respect — more than Saddam deserved, but the right thing to do. Saddam Hussein’s execution stained everybody involved in it, including the United States.

Besides, the Iraqi resistance was going to fight with or without Saddam, because his fall from power orphaned them: their only hope for survival was to maintain Iraq in a perpetual state of chaos where guns and bombs were the arbiters of right and wrong. (Disbanding the Iraqi Army was part and parcel of creating this legion of miscreants, but let’s not open that can of worms right now.) Saddam could have called on everyone to stop fighting, and it probably wouldn’t have mattered very much.

Not the most graphic image from the execution, but I'm not reproducing them here. Enough's enough.

Instead, I’d argue that the case that most resembles Qaddafi’s is the 1989 execution of Nicolae and Elena Ceaucescu in Romania. Nicolae Ceaucescu was a demented Stalinoid dictator whose regime that winter was in tatters, as his security forces fought on against the Romanian army and people.

His wife Elena — who would have scared the Borgias — was equally unrepentant after their capture by the Romanian military. They both died by firing squad while hissing and hurling curses at their executioners. According to one account, so many soldiers volunteered to shoot them that a lottery was held to allocate places in the firing squad.

I was a young college professor at the time. I had just started teaching and was thinking pretty hard about what to tell my students. Despite my conservative politics in other areas, I was nonetheless a paid-up member of Amnesty International. I was uncomfortable with the summary execution of a couple of dowdy, middle-aged pseudo-Communists after a “trial” that lasted 90 minutes.

Amnesty International  protested the execution. I was sickened by it as well, but Amnesty’s position was too sanctimonious for me: I dropped my membership. In the end, I think I just swallowed hard and accepted the execution of the Ceaucescus, as brutal as it was, as a necessity of a civil war, and an act that saved lives. Had either Nicolae or Elena repented and agreed to call for an end to the fighting, I suppose I would have sided with Amnesty, but both of them were hideous to the core, and like Qaddafi, would have killed every man, woman and child in their nation to hold on to their power.

Moreover, when people are getting gunned down in the street on your orders, and your only words when you’re captured are “screw you,” then I think you’ve signed your own death warrant and taken a great deal of the moral onus off the people who then, with good reason, will send you off to whatever greater judgment awaits.

This is the best rationalization I can think of for killing Qaddafi on the spot — but it’s not one I can really believe in myself. Qaddafi, coward and pathetic boob that he was, surrendered, and asked not to be killed. (He also, apparently, said “What have I ever done to you?” It almost makes you admire the macho of a human waste dump like Uday Hussein.)

Stupid, narcissistic, and crazy to the last, Qaddafi was done and his further existence, one way or another, was irrelevant — which is why he probably should have been spared and just put in a cage for the rest of his life.

Please don't feed the terrorists: Abimael Guzman in custody

Think, for example, of Abimael Guzman, the leader of Peru’s Shining Path terrorists. Proving once again that intellectuals are the greatest threat to humanity, the former philosophy professor led a brutal campaign of terror in Peru until his final capture in 1992.

Rather than execute him — and if anyone deserved it, he did — he was exhibited like a trophy by the Peruvian government, and then sent off for life to a prison on a island naval base. Eventually, he ratted out some of his former comrades — they all do, sooner or later — and now is largely forgotten outside of Peru. (I had to go look him up because I wasn’t sure he was even still alive.)

I’m still not sure how I feel about whacking Qaddafi right in the street. Some of the reports from Libya suggest that some of his captors just got out of control, lost their temper, and gunned him down. A completely human reaction to a ghoul like Qaddafi, but understanding it doesn’t mean applauding it, either. And while this may seem contradictory, I can accept displaying his body as necessary in a region that feeds on crazy conspiracy theories. Dead or alive, the Libyan people needed to see him with as many of their own eyes as possible, much like the exhibition of Guzman.

The one thing I’m sure of, however, is that I don’t really have the stomach for any pompous lessons in ethics, morality, or war — or any standards of civilized Western conduct, for that matter — from a Russian government whose cynicism and brutality must be making their Soviet predecessors smile just a bit.

The world is better off without Qaddafi among us, but we don’t need lectures from Vladimir Putin’s minions on the niceties and legalities of dispatching dictators to Hell.

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