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Friday, October 21, 2011
“History is not merely what happened. It is what happened in the context of what might have happened.” – Historian Hugh Trevor-Roper
Moammar Gadhafi, or his alter-ego, Moammar Khaddafy, has been killed by U.S.-backed rebel freedom fighters, dangerous anti-American terrorists or President Obama. Depends. The demise of the Libyan leader was hastened with the support of NATO forces from above and perhaps some secret ‘assistance’ on the ground. Despite the uncertainty surrounding the circumstances, it seems clear that he is dead. We may never know the true story of what happened, but history will tell a story nonetheless. That’s what history does. Objectivity is very subjective.
While processing the news of the dictator’s fate, I’m conflicted on an intellectual level, and indifferent on an emotional level.
Intellectually, on the one hand, I question our right to continue the support of killing in the name of saving lives. There are admittedly many bad actors in the world (I’m looking at you, Tom Arnold) but I must question the degree to which we assign ourselves as Americans the preeminent role of global executioner. I am reluctant to place that kind of unchecked power in one man, or one government, regardless of party affiliation. As I have said, we cannot kill our way to victory in the battle against evil, although we can give it the ol’ college try. I am not sure that killing as many of them before they get us is a winning or a moral strategy. It’s cold and lonely here on the moral high ground.
Emotionally, my mood is best described as indifferent. I am satisfied that Gadhafi is gone, as well as bin Laden and all the other leaders of global terrorism for that matter. The world should be a better place without them. Satisfaction, however, is not the same as joy or happiness, and I do not feel the need to shoot my AK-47 off into the air in celebration. I might feel differently if my life was more directly impacted by this particular madman, but it wasn’t. I cringe at the scenes of any Americans exercising their patriotic duty cheering the death of anyone, even such a crazed maniac. I’m glad he’s gone, but that’s the end of it for me. Instead of taking to the streets and honking my horn, I think I’ll make a sandwich. (bin Laden was different – I felt tangibly safer knowing that guy was gone.)
Intellectually and emotionally, I have moved on from Gadhafi and I am preparing myself for the next battle, the battle to win credit for the deed. U.S. politicians will state that Gadhafi is gone because of their unequivocal and unwavering support for NATO and the rebel cause. Another set of U.S. politicians will begrudgingly acknowledge his death, and then remind the public that had everyone followed their preferred course of action, this would have happened sooner. Others still will hedge their bets and say, “Good job”, but let’s see how the next phase is managed before we erect any statutes. There will be no winners in this political battle for history’s judgment. Of this I am certain, since my daughter to this day is learning competing theories as to the fall of the Roman Empire. Almost 2 millennia later, you think we’d know for sure.
The results of revolutions like this are best measured in decades and centuries. We debate and score these events on nightly TV when it is impossible to know who is right. The unknowns are too numerous, the facts too fluid. It does help to pass the time, and sometimes it helps someone get elected.
Is the death of Gadhafi at this time, in this manner, a good thing or a bad thing? Despite the pundits’ air of certainty about the correct answer to that question, may I submit that they have no idea? The situation in Africa and the Middle East cannot be analyzed like a simple game of geopolitical checkers, or competitive game of checkers’ smarter cousin, chess. In chess, the pieces only move when we act on them, and the game itself is typically played on a flat board with two different colored teams. Real life foreign policy games exists in a world with a 3 dimensional board, pieces of all colors, and oh – guns and bombs. It is not as antiseptic as a classroom debate, and what we don’t know outweighs what we are told.
The currents of history are moving swiftly and violently so far in this century, driven by an historic shift of power from the institutions to individuals. Technology has played a large role is breaking down barriers to knowledge, information, and most of all, communication. Democratization is sweeping the globe, and the consequences of this shift will not be known for decades, maybe centuries. Arab Spring, the Awakening, Occupy Wall Street, the death of Gadhafi will all be brief mentions in the larger story that is not yet completely written about the Rise of the Individual. History is hard to understand from the front lines, and we are under attack by events.
When considering the Gadhafi saga, my conflict is both moral and historical. We won’t know what the right thing to do was for a long, long time. Maybe never.