“Lynching Qaddafi”: an anthropologist’s p.o.v.


Mark Anspach is an anthropologist and author of  Vengeance in Reverse. The Book Haven recently published a Q&A about the book here. We also posted about an earlier piece he wrote on mass murderer Anders Behring Brevik here. Mark is the editor of Oedipus Unbound: Selected Writings on Rivalry and Desire by René Girard (Stanford, 2004). He is a contributor to Mimesis and Science: Empirical Research on Imitation and the Mimetic Theory of Culture and Religion, edited by Scott R. Garrels (MSU, 2011). 

The story Mark tells here is new and old. It was originally published online in November 2011, but disappeared. We had hoped to republish it here in 2016, but held off in the upheaval after the elections. The story of lynching, however, is “evergreen” – and so we publish it today:

An on-camera lynching

“I’m good at killing people,” President Obama said. While claiming a proficiency at targeted assassinations is not the usual boast of a Nobel peace prize winner, it signals a change.  “We came, we saw, he died,” said Hillary Clinton at the death of Muammar Qaddafi. 

With everyone agreeing Qaddafi was a monster, the outcry over the way he died caught the Libyan rebels by surprise. A member of the National Transitional Council shrugged off criticism. “They beat him very harshly and then they killed him,” he said. “This is a war.”1

When videos showed rebels brutalizing their dazed and bloody prey, Libya’s new rulers bowed to demands for an investigation, but the impression remained that they didn’t really grasp what all the fuss was about.

Call it a cultural misunderstanding. Is it the Libyans’ fault if they don’t see what’s wrong with an old-fashioned lynching? Maybe we should turn the question around and ask why the images of Qaddafi’s final moments make us so uneasy.

A comment from the first Western journalist on the scene holds a hidden clue.  Describing cell phone footage of Qaddafi’s capture on the outskirts of Sirte, he wrote that the aging dictator who had once dreamed of uniting Africa “no longer bore any resemblance to a self-styled ‘king of kings’.”2

At first glance, this assertion seems self-evidently true. But is it?

Mark on mic

 Let’s forget Libya for a moment and imagine the following scene. Soldiers swarm around a prisoner, strip him of his clothes, mock and torment him and finally put him to death. The victim of the execution is a pitiable figure, bloodied and helpless to resist his captors – and yet, 2000 years later, his followers still call him the King of Kings.

The centrality of this story in our culture has trained us to be suspicious whenever we see someone treated the way Jesus was at the hands of Roman soldiers. That is true no matter who the victim is or what he may have done to deserve his fate.

Obviously, no one would mistake Muammar Qaddafi for a Prince of Peace, but that’s not the point. The very fact of lynching, in and of itself, is what we find unacceptable. As cultural theorist René Girard has long contended that the crucifixion of Jesus gave lynching a bad name.

That is not to say that Western societies have been immune to mob violence – far from it. We know that in our own country, between the late 1800’s and the 1960’s, thousands of black citizens were lynched. And we have been culpably silent today in the face of persistent reports from Libya that blacks have been attacked by rebel mobs.3

Nevertheless, in our culture, the crucifixion story is there to serve as a template for opposition to any kind of lynching. African-American writer Gwendolyn Brooks expresses this idea forcefully in the closing lines of her poem “The Chicago Defender Sends a Man to Little Rock – Fall, 1957”:

The lariat lynch-wish I deplored.
The loveliest lynchee was our Lord.

In younger days, 1970s (Photo: Stevan Kragujevic)

The rest of the poem emphasizes the disarming ordinariness of the people in a Southern town where black children faced racist violence when they tried to attend a white school. For the visiting reporter from a Northern black newspaper, this ordinariness is a “puzzle”:

The biggest News I do not dare
Telegraph to the Editor’s chair:
“They are like people everywhere.”

Throughout history, people everywhere have been prone to outbursts of violence like those that have marked the civil war in Libya. The real puzzle, perhaps, is how the human race ever managed to survive at all.

For René Girard, the answer lies in the paradoxical capacity of violence itself to reconcile people by bringing them together in a joint assault on a common victim or scapegoat. The cathartic elimination of an individual thought to embody all the evils afflicting the group temporarily restores unity and makes possible the founding of a new order.

“All the evils have vanished from this beloved country,” proclaimed transitional premier Mahmoud Jibril upon announcing the killing of Qaddafi. “It’s time to start a new Libya, a united Libya, one people, one future.”5

However much evil Qaddafi may have wrought, he cannot have been the only wrongdoer in the country. To claim otherwise is to make a scapegoat of him. In fact, despite what one might think, a scapegoat doesn’t have to be innocent. On the contrary, the guiltier he is, the more convincingly he can stand in for all other guilty parties and be sacrificed in their stead.

“It is important to cultivate the future victim’s supposed potential for evil, to transform him into a monster of iniquity,” writes Girard. This explains certain mysterious African royal rituals where the future king must commit forbidden sexual acts or violent crimes: the ruler himself is being set up as a scapegoat who must appear “worthy” of punishment.

In later days, 2009 (Wikimedia Commons)

The scapegoat king unites his subjects around him by uniting them against him. Insulted by the crowd during the installation ceremony, he may even face a mock attack by the royal army. Although he is not actually killed at the beginning of his rule, he often is killed at the end. Originally, the “king reigns only by virtue of his future death,” Girard writes. He is “no more and no less than a victim awaiting sacrifice.”6

In an earlier article on the Arab revolts, we argued that the fall of rulers like Mubarak restores them to the immemorial role of scapegoat kings. The photograph illustrating our text showed a placard in Tahrir Square that depicted Mubarak, Qaddafi and other Arab dictators as sheep awaiting sacrifice.

In the case of the Libyan leader, the photo proved prophetic. Through a chance twist of fate, Qaddafi was ultimately tracked down in a culvert that “opened next to a clutch of empty sheep pens.”7 By treating him like a sacrificial lamb,8 his captors briefly returned him to the central position he had gradually lost in the course of the war.

After his shirtless corpse was put on display in Misurata, thousands of Libyans from near and far made the pilgrimage to the rebel stronghold. To paraphrase Shakespeare’s Richard II, they were eager to see “undecked the pompous body of a king” – and to capture the image on their cell phones, carrying it away with them as the high-tech equivalent of a holy relic.

For four days, the endless procession of onlookers filed past Qaddafi’s mortal remains. One reporter called the scene “a grim parody of the lying in state typically accorded to deceased leaders.”9 Even when Qaddafi’s one-time subjects came to curse him, it was hard to avoid the thought that they were also paying him a perverse kind of homage.

He figured it out.

The ambiguity of the situation is rooted in the dual nature of the scapegoat. If his death seems to make every evil vanish, then he has performed a miracle for which the people can only be grateful. By drawing all hatred to himself, he has become a mystical source of unity. For this reason, Girard suggests, we should not be surprised to find him transformed into “a sort of cult object” and “surrounded by a quasi-religious aura of veneration.”10

The owner of a house where Qaddafi’s body was exhibited like a cult object said, “This was the opportunity of my life. If I die tomorrow, I’m happy.”11 But knowledgeable observers fear the joy of Libyans will be short-lived. Their homeland is “shot through with rivalries, jealousies and blood debts,” notes Tarak Barkawi of Cambridge University. “Now it has lost the one thing that united much of the country: hatred of Colonel Gaddafi and his regime.”12

Already, the problem of how to dispose of the Colonel’s body caused unseemly bickering behind the scenes. In the end, the solution found was straight out of Leviticus: like the biblical scapegoat, the dead dictator was sent away into the desert. But he can hardly have taken the country’s ills with him.

Today the would-be “king of kings” rests peaceably in an unmarked grave. Yet the deep-seated conflicts that divide Libya – between East and West, between rival tribes, between Arabs and blacks – are likely to come roaring back. They will not be so easy to bury under the sand.

Footnotes below the fold…


1 Gordon Rayner, “Rebels accused of executing former Libyan leader and son Mutassim,” The Telegraph, Oct. 21, 2011.

2 Ben Farmer, “Col Gaddafi killed: no mercy for a merciless tyrant,” The Telegraph, Oct. 20, 2011.

3 David Zucchino, “Libyan rebels accused of targeting blacks,” Los Angeles Times, March 4, 2011; Kim Sengupta, “Rebels settle scores in Libyan capital,” The Independent, Aug. 27, 2011; Ruth Pollard, “Joy of liberation soured by racist attacks,” Sydney Morning Herald, Sept. 2, 2011

4 For a Girardian commentary on this poem, see Matthew R. Kratter’s contribution to the 1999 meeting of the Colloquium on Violence & Religion: http://www.religion.emory.edu/affiliate/COVR/kratter.html

5 “Col Gaddafi killed,” The Telegraph, Oct. 20, 2011.

6 René Girard, Violence and the Sacred, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins, 1977, pp. 104-107.

7 “Col Gaddafi killed,” The Telegraph, Oct. 20, 2011.

8 Libyans celebrated the Muslim feast of sacrifice, Eid al-Adha, on November 6. “This Eid is different – we killed Gaddafi,” laughed a Misurata resident. “Now we’re all going home to kill our lambs” (Alastair Macdonald, “Joy, grief and hope at Libya’s feast of sacrifice,” Reuters, Nov. 6, 2011).

9 Rania El Gamal, “Libya ends public showing of Gaddafi’s body,” Reuters, Oct. 24, 2011.

10 Violence and the Sacred, p. 95.

11 Kareem Fahim, “After Making Capture in Pipe, Displaying the Trophies of War,” New York Times, Oct. 20, 2011.

12 “Peace may be war in post-war Libya,” AlJazeera, Oct. 21, 2011.

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One Response to ““Lynching Qaddafi”: an anthropologist’s p.o.v.”

  1. George Says:

    The American way of assassination has tended to involve aircraft–P-38s for Yamamoto, Predator drones more recently. The killing of Osama Bin Laden was an exception: generally the close-up shooting is done by allies or proxies (think of Diem, whom the CIA would rather have seen exiled). I guess that one could classify this as a case of the American preference for machinery over manual labor.

    That apart, how should we distinguish the death of Qadaffi from that of Mussolini? The partisans who captured and shot the latter were allied with the US. Some partisan formations were armed, clothed, and fed by the US, though I don’t know that particular one was.