Simon Sebag Montefiore: Dictators Get the Deaths They DeserveRoundup: Historians' Take
Simon Sebag Montefiore is the author of “Jerusalem: The Biography.”
“ALL political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure,” wrote Enoch Powell, the controversial but often perspicacious British politician, “because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.” But the political lives of tyrants play out human affairs with a special intensity: the death of a democratic leader long after his retirement is a private matter, but the death of a tyrant is always a political act that reflects the character of his power. If a tyrant dies peacefully in bed in the full resplendence of his rule, his death is a theater of that power; if a tyrant is executed while crying for mercy in the dust, then that, too, is a reflection of the nature of a fallen regime and the reaction of an oppressed people.
This was never truer than in the death, last week, of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. The only difference between his death and those of so many other tyrants across history was that it was filmed with mobile phones, a facility unavailable to contemporaries of, say, the Roman emperor Caligula.
Despite brandished phones and pistols, there was something Biblical in the wild scene, as elemental as the deaths of King Ahab (“the dogs licked up his blood”) and Queen Jezebel (thrown off a palace balcony). It was certainly not as terrible as the death of the Byzantine emperor Andronicus I, who was beaten and dismembered, his hair and teeth pulled out by the mob, his handsome face burned with boiling water. In modern times, it was more frenzied than the semi-formal execution, in 1989, of the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, but not as terrible as the ghastly lynching, in 1958, of the innocent King Faisal II of Iraq (age 23) and his hated uncle, who were supposedly impaled and dismembered, their heads used as soccer balls. In 1996, the pro-Soviet former president of Afghanistan, Najibullah, was castrated, dragged through the streets and hanged.
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