For four days, Qaddafi's body has been on public display. In a Muslim society, where burial is supposed to be immediate, this is an ultimate desecration. Here in the west, there is triumphalism, there is endless political analysis leading nowhere, but, au fond, it is the media on a rampage, a pack of dogs circling in for the kill. They show whatever pictures or videos they can acquire; nothing is too grisly, too inexplicable for children's eyes or damaging to their spirits; everything is fair game; no one is spared. Today's New York Times front page not only had videos and photographs of Qaddafi's end, but videos of the executions of Mussolini and Ceausescu.
I didn't watch them. I am sickened by all of this, even though I see little. I am not arguing that Qaddafi or Hussein or their ilk were not crazy, murderous dictators who had committed unspeakable criimes against their own people, or that they did not deserve justice. What sickens me is the atttitude in America, where the public appetite for violence and sensationalism apparently has no limit, while our hubris is coupled with blindness to our own acts, to the blood on our own hands.
I'm reminded of imperial Rome, and the scene of Hector's death in the Iliad, many centuries before that. The Greeks, who gave us the word "barbarian" -- for them it meant "foreigner" -- were the barbarians that day. Achilles threaded sinews through Hector's ankles and dragged his naked corpse thrice around the walls of Troy behind his chariot, while Hector's wife and parents watched. Then Achilles, still mourning the death of his beloved friend Patroclus at the hands of the Trojans, refused to give up Hector's body for burial until King Priam, his aged father, came and begged on his knees for it. Rather than being a hymn of praise to the Greeks, the Iliad was, and remains (at least in my opinion) a poet's commentary on the folly of war, and a bitter insight into human nature.
But oh, the never-ending cruelty of victors, who always seem to feel their triumphalism is justified by the prior acts of those they kill! They make sure that the wheels of malice, war, and retribution remain well-oiled.
My dental surgeon left Romania as a young man shortly after the fall of Ceausescu. His hygienist, who I visited this morning, is Moroccan; the dental assistants are Salvadorian and Iranian, the receptionist French-Canadian. They've all known something about minorities, repression, violence, disappearances. The office runs mostly in French, but there is always a flurry of other languages; it's one of the surgeon's hobbies. I speak to my hygienist in my limited French, and she replies in her limited English. We laugh; at 11:00 I opened my mouth for her, and said, "La leçon commence!"
But today, after we spoke about our recent trips --mine to Iceland and London, hers to New York, which she loved but where her language uncertainty made her afraid to use the subway -- I asked, "Penses-tu q'une paix est possible à la Libye?
She paused, the instrument poised in mid-air, and sat back, her eyes dark above her mask. Then she slowly shook her head. "It's very difficult," she said. "Dans toute la région, l'islamisme..." she gestured with her hands moving upward and raised her eyebrows: "il monte..."
"It's rising," I said.
"Yes," she said. "Et les jeunes ne l'aime pas."
"The young people don't like it."
"C'est ça. That's right. And the military, the dictators, don't like it. So...what do you do?"
This really is the impass facing the whole world. The problems are obvious, but what is the way forward when factions insist on their own ideologies as the answer, and those in power use it for greed and cronyism, rather than cooperating for the common good? Here in the west we may dress up in suits and speak formally rather than brandishing rifles, but how far have we come, really, from these tribes in the desert?