Ugly or beautiful?

On Thursday night, walking down Edgware Road heading for Paddington Station and the last train home, I fell in with a group of euphoric Libyans. The group was mostly young women and men and they were shouting and singing, following a man with a loud hailer. Shopkeepers stood on their doorways clapping with delight. Cars and taxis slowed and hooted. Gaddafi was dead.

The group halted by Nutford Place, and its members stood and shouted. Some jumped on the spot. They were free, their country was free, they were safe.

I walked on with a smile on my face. Thinking how brave Libyans had been to overthrow their tyrant; wondering at London’s role as one of the world’s sanctuaries, how Edgware Road ran – for a fleeting moment – through Misrata and Tripoli. Thinking how fortunate I was to live in a country which took freedom and safety for granted.

I thought of those laughing, shouting young people the next morning, as I listened to the Today Programme. John Simpson, the BBC’s world affairs editor, was being interviewed by John Humphrys about the events of the previous day. We were reminded that Simpson had met Gaddafi many times, and chuckling, he assured us listeners that Gaddafi had been “barking mad”. But Simpson’s main objective (or that of the BBC Editor) was to observe that the style of Gaddafi’s death – pulled wounded from a sewer, beaten and abused, held on the bonnet of a truck, his dead body paraded amidst scenes of jubilation – was “terrible”. You didn’t have to like the man, Simpson suggested, to think that these scenes and this morning’s gloating headlines was a “rather ugly way of ending”.

Here was the western liberal interpretation: a law had been broken, a new victim created. Killing, even at a time of war, is wrong. “In victory: Magnamity”. Everyone, even a cruel dictator, has a right to a fair trial. For a veteran of conflicts and revolutions in other people’s countries, Simpson’s tone felt (surprisingly) removed and tin-eared.

The scenes on YouTube are ugly. It is impossible to watch a wounded man shoved around by men about to kill him without being disturbed. And the images filmed on mobile phones are shaking and jumpy, the sound quality is raw, the colours muffled and bleeding. But the dancing men and women on Edgware Road were beautiful in their joy and hope. When their rebellion began many doubted their chances of overthrowing Gaddafi. It took NATO air strikes to stop him massacring the young men and women of Benghazi; men and women whose parents and grandparents he had treated with cruelty and indifference for decades.

Amnesty and UNHCR warn Gaddafi’s death may have been a war crime. Well, maybe it was, in the language of international law. But in the heat and dust of Sirte, in the confusion of air strikes and a desperate desire to prevent Gaddafi from fleeing, a tyrant was killed. The informality of Gaddafi’s execution is not the story. It is fact, an untidy, violent episode consistent with an untidy, violent conflict that is now, we hope, ended. A Gaddafi trial would have been a long running, de-stabilising soap opera. Just think how he would have milked it: long speeches, embarrassing his enemies at home and abroad, rallying the disaffected. Humphrys and Simpson both regretted the passing of this rich opportunity for truth-telling and exposé; SIS’s involvement with Gaddafi , for example, would now never be known. Journalists love a show trial.

If I am glad for the young Libyans of Edgware Road, and their new but uncertain futures, then I must be glad that Gaddafi is dead, and I do not care how he died. And my image of this moment in history is not the old man’s blooded face pleading for mercy, but the smiles on the faces of the men and women who had been set free.

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