On July 13 1793 the assassin Marie-Anne Charlotte De Corday d’Armont entered the private rooms of Paris-dwelling Jean-Paul Marat, “L’Ami du peuple“, revolutionary, Jacobin and soon: dead.
The much-feared one greeted her from his reclining position in the bath, the treated water soothing his blistered, itchy skin no other place offering suitable respite from the intense, burning discomfort. Such measures were a necessity, for Marat “L’Ami du peuple” had very important work to do: denouncing and dispensing with “Les Enemmis De Les Revolution”. In death he clutched a piece of damp parchment, upon which were scrawled the blood-stained names of the revolution’s “enemies”.
It is a dramatic scene I have often imagined. Corday: grimly intent upon her purpose undeterred by the previous day’s events (she had been turned away from Marat’s residence), offering her the chance to turn back, never to return, never to execute her violent deed. However, “L’Ami du peuple” was not to receive any such reprieve from his fate. Marat: twitchy, scratching distractedly at his crackled, inflamed skin, inked quill poised between bandaged fingers, obsessively scribbling down the names betrayed to him by the, as yet, unrevealed murderess, secure in his position, infallible, triumphant … and then the swift sharpness of Corday’s steel blade. Did she cry out or silently administer her punishment? Was it animalistic or coolly calculating?
“Aidez-moi, ma chère amie!
Corday was executed as a murderer. In the annals of history as in a painting by Paul-Jacques-Aimé Baudry she is often portrayed heroically, her victim a supporting character in a tale of justice correctly served.
In 2011 another “leader of the revolution” met with a similarly brutal end. He too begged for mercy and received none. We, in the present day, don’t have to imagine that scene, there is video footage of it. We know what happened. It’s plain for all to see. What is dividing opinion, however, is whether Gaddafi met his rightful end?
It’s not like a bit of rough justice every now and again goes unappreciated. Take the recent example of Casey Heynes, the Australian boy who defended himself against the school bully to worldwide internet applause. The general consensus was that the bully got his comeuppance. It’s perhaps for the same reason that we cheer revolutionaries who stand up to tyrannous regimes. Although most people would never condone using violence to resolve problems, in some circumstances using it is recognised as the right thing to do. I have written on this subject before; our sense of “right” is sometimes emotionally driven rather than intellectually justifiable.
In this case it would appear to be a mixture of the two. Although there are probably very few who would claim to feel much sympathy for Gaddafi — myself included — to quote Bob Dylan: “There is nothing in here moving.” There is a sense that the dictator’s gruesome, final moments do not augur well for the future of fair judicial process in Libya. Reports today of the discovery of mass graves of what are believed to be pro- supporters only adds to such concerns.
Ennemis de la revolution …
A trial is probably no more psychologically satisfying than reducing a mortal enemy to a quivering, pleading wreck before mercilessly obliterating him altogether. After WW2 the thirst for revenge was enormous, show trials and hasty executions of captured Nazis were demanded. It is not entirely certain that the angry victors would not have pursued this course. The desire for revenge was strong. In the eventual trials that did take place, however, the defendants were all granted proper legal representation and the right to mount a defence, in turn the prosecution was required to provide concrete evidence and a convincing argument. Although, to many minds the guilt of many the accused was not in any real doubt the point of proving beyond any reasonable doubt was to in some way be better (morally speaking) than those they had bested in war and also to decisively remove any shred of doubt that these people deserved the ultimate punishment for their crimes.
In one of the most powerful accounts I have ever heard of the Nuremberg trials, an American witness described the trial of Hermann Goering and other former high-ranking members of the Nazi party. Goering was smug, arrogant and unrepentant; he had even chosen to represent himself, entering a not-guilty plea of course and laughing and joking while he sat in the dock with the other defendants.
Until one day during the course of the trial the prosecution showed a film composed of footage that allied soldiers had taken of liberated concentration camps. After two harrowing hours the film came to an end. People were weeping. Others had excused themselves from the room, overcome by the horror of those images, which we today are only too familiar with. Court was adjourned for the day. It didn’t escape notice, however, as the witness recounted, that the demeanour of the previously unperturbed defendants had visibly changed. They were disturbed. Scared even. “They knew that the jig was up. The jig was up.”
Revenge is perhaps best served cold.
While my concern is not for the welfare of Gaddafi, it is for the future of Libya. Gaddafi’s death is not the most auspicious beginning for the new regime, but certainly a decisive end to the old. Time will tell whether they differ in degree or in kind.
“He who fights too long against dragons becomes a dragon himself, and if you gaze too long into the abyss, the abyss will gaze into you.”
*The name of the American witness escapes me. I have searched long and hard for it with no success. His account was in a documentary titled “The Nuremberg Trials” broadcast on the Military History Channel, in case anyone wants to see it for themselves.