A neighbour stopped me on my way to work.
“Hello?” she called out. “Hello?”
It was October 21, one day after Colonel Muammar Gaddafi was killed.
“Yesterday was an historic day,” she said, wanting to make sure I was aware. It was hard to tell if she was happy or sad, or still trying to figure it out.
At work, reporters and editors crowded around the flat screen TV in the newsroom. They watched Gaddafi – bloodied, confused, babbling, humiliated – as he stumbled through the crowd, his prominent chin, so square and noble in his usurping youth, now just a sagging, spattered punctuation mark in history.
The reactions were mixed. There was jubilation. There was ambivalence. And there was anger.
“We will wash your revenge in the blood of your enemies,” I heard one reporter mutter under her breath.
Throughout the week, TV news played images of Gaddafi’s naked corpse rotting in a meat locker, his penis pixalated, his skin an odd, dead colour, and all around him Libyans taking pictures with their cell phones, trying to lock up digitally the massive, historical change made metaphor right at their feet.
It’s a jarring sight, diametrically opposed to the images of Gaddafi we typically see. The brother leader, the king of kings, dressed in his military livery, in his traditional garb, wearing aviators, expounding from a podium, always in control. Now naked and dead and surrounded by cell phone cameras. It’s the Hussein-in-a-hole effect, like Mubarak in a cage, like Charles Taylor in a courtroom, like Slobodan Milosevic at the Hague: power denuded, power made vulnerable, so pathetically so that it’s a little bit laughable, if only because it seems so impossible.
“It makes me sad to see him like that,” said an Auntie who runs a South La bar. “It makes me sad.”
A lot of people remember a younger Gaddafi. He overthrew Libya’s monarchy when he was just 27, and in the years since he threw all kinds of ideas into the African imagination, first in the north and then across the Sub-Saharan regions as well. He promised Arab socialism in his Green Book. He wanted a United States of Africa, and his rhetoric was purple with pan-African sentiment. It made some people proud: See Gaddafi at the UN, wending his way through an hour of oratory, demanding trillions in reparations for colonialism.
The reporter who whispered for his bloody revenge called him an African hero. One of my roommates will never forget when Gaddafi’s entourage drove to Ghana from Tripoli, and he gestured wildly recounting the details, the vehicles expensive and impressive, the soldiers well-dressed and disciplined, and in their wake gifts of cars for the government.
But that’s not the narrative told in the West. In the West, where Gaddafi is inextricably associated with terrorist acts like Lockerbie, he was a super villain, the kind of guy who wanted his picture taken with the likes of Idi Amin, Uganda’s post-Independence psychopath, or Bashar al-Assad, who is brutally repressing his own revolution in Syria. Even the uneasy, post-9/11 alliance didn’t really wash in the public. Western news narratives don’t often permit nuance. There are good guys and bad, and not much in between.
Here, even in proud eulogies, there’s at least quiet acknowledgment of Gaddafi’s darker side. Absolute power, people say, it’ll do that: torture, murder, abductions. And sometimes they say nothing at all; it’s just a trick of tonality, a dark cloud floating in their voice, disappointment in denial. You hear it, but you aren’t told.
“It was an historic day,” my neighbour said again, and you figure it’ll take her some time to make sense of all that history.