That’s apparently what happened to Moammar Gaddafi after he was captured by Libyan rebels—died in a “crossfire,” explains Libya’s new government. This has greatly agitated ACLU types, morally unemployed ever since a Democratic administration declared Guantanamo humane. The indignation has spread to human rights groups and Western governments, deeply concerned about the manner of Gaddafi’s demise.
Let’s begin at the beginning. Early in the revolution, Gaddafi could have had due process. Indeed, he could have had something better: asylum (in Nicaragua, for example) with a free pass for his crimes. If he stepped down, thereby avoiding the subsequent civil war that killed thousands of his countrymen, he could have enjoyed a nice fat retirement, like that of Idi Amin in Saudi Arabia.
Like Amin, Gaddafi would not have deserved a single day of untroubled repose. Such an outcome would itself have been a gross violation of justice, as he’d have gone unpunished for his uncountable crimes. But it would have spared his country much bloodshed and suffering.
Such compromises are fully justified and rather common. They are, for example, the essence of the various truth and reconciliation commissions in countries transitioning from authoritarianism to democracy. In post-Pinochet Chile and post-apartheid South Africa, it was decided that full justice—punishing the guilty—would be sacrificed in order to preserve the fragile social peace of the new democracy.
The former oppressors having agreed to a peaceful relinquishing of power, full justice might have ignited renewed civil strife. Therefore, these infant democracies settled for mere truth: a meticulous accounting of the crimes of the previous regime. In return for truthful testimony, perpetrators were given amnesty.
Under the normal rule of law, truth is only a means for achieving justice, not an end in itself. The real end is determining guilt and assigning punishment. But in war and revolution, one cannot have everything. Justice might threaten peace. Therefore peace trumps full justice.
Gaddafi could have had such a peace-over-justice compromise. He chose instead to fight to the death. He got what he chose.
That fateful decision to fight—and kill—is the prism through which to judge the cruel treatment Gaddafi received in his last hours. It is his refusal to forgo those final crimes, those final shellings of civilians, those final executions of prisoners that justifies his rotten death.
He could have taken a de facto amnesty for all his previous crimes, from Pan Am 103 to the 1996 massacre of 1,200 inmates at Tripoli’s Abu Salim prison. To reject that option and proceed to create an entirely new catalog of crimes—for that there is no forgiveness. For that you are sentenced to die by “crossfire.” So he was killed by his captors. Big deal. So was Mussolini. So were the Ceausescus. They deserved far worse. As did Gaddafi. In a world of perfect justice, this Caligula should have suffered far more, far longer. He inflicted unimaginable suffering upon thousands. What did he suffer? Perhaps an hour of torment and a shot through the head. By any standard of cosmic justice, that’s mercy.
Moreover, Gaddafi’s sorry end has one major virtue: deterrence. You are a murderous dictator with a rebellion on your hands. You have a choice. Relinquish power and spare your country further agony, and you can then live out your days like Amin—or like a more contemporary Saudi guest, Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Otherwise, you die like Gaddafi, dragged from a stinking sewer pipe, abused, taunted and shot.
It’s not pretty. But it’s a precedent. And a salutary one. One that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, for example, might contemplate. Continue to fight and kill, and expect thereafter no belated offers of asylum—not even the due process of a long talky judicial proceeding in The Hague with a nice comfy cell, three meals a day and the consoling certainty that your captors practice none of your specialties: torture and summary execution.
Call it the Gaddafi Rule: Give it up and go, or one day find death by “Libyan crossfire.” Followed by a Libyan state funeral. That’s when you lie on public view for four days, half-naked in a meat locker.
Charles Krauthammer is a columnist for the Washington Post. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.