Bursts of vengeance make for dramatic YouTube videos, but trials and testimonies go down in history books.
"Don't kill him! We need him alive!" Moammar Gaddafi's captors beg on a grainy cell phone video, shortly before bullets are heard flying through the air.
Libya may have been celebrating yesterday, but today, joy has given way to uncertainty. Libyan authorities claimed the dictator was killed in a crossfire, but after new footage surfaced showing a barely conscious Gaddafi being beaten and dragged through the streets, many are wondering whether he was executed in an act of passion by angry rebels. Human Rights Watch is calling it "mob justice." Amnesty International called for a “full, independent and impartial investigation” into Gaddafi's death, claiming that an execution after capture would constitute a war crime. The United Nations will likely "look into" the matter.
As of this posting, Libyan authorities are waving off these accusations and are planning to bury Gaddafi secretly in the next few days. But the urgent (and rebuffed) requests of the captors in the video loom large. Some of us felt this same pang of regret when Osama bin Laden was unceremoniously killed by U.S. forces, shutting down the hope of a trial. Though virtually every American approved of the mission that resulted in bin Laden's death, 33 percent wished he had been captured alive. On the other end of the spectrum, many Tunisians probably feel frustrated about their former dictator's open-ended fate: Zine El Adibine Ben Ali simply fled the country without serving his jail time. Regardless of the rules of war or the atrocities committed during a dictator's reign, shouldn't we bring our villains to justice in a more methodical way?
Bursts of vengeance make for dramatic YouTube videos, but the words of witnesses go down in history books. Even if the criminal in question ends up dead, public testimony is cathartic not only for the witnesses, but for an entire nation. Take the Nazis: Hitler took his own life cowering in a bunker, but he could have just as easily been faced with a shower of bullets that day in April 1945. Inglourious Basterds-style fantasies abound, of course; there are certainly those who wish Hitler had met a similar fate to Gaddafi's. But there are surely just as many who wish he was part of the Nuremberg trials. Just imagine if historians had had access to his testimony—the lessons of World War II could have been all the more layered, and its victims may have felt a heightened sense of closure.
Perhaps the modern-day villain we should look toward is Saddam Hussein. His life ended in a noose, but he was executed by the Iraqi government for crimes against humanity after a trial (and a failed assassination attempt). Iraqi citizens were divided about Hussein's execution, but many of them took comfort in his day in court and sentencing. Whether Gaddafi's death is deemed fair according to the rules of war is irrelevent. The fact is that he will never have to answer to Libyans in a court of law. He will never hear the voices of witnesses and prosecutors. And don't citizens of any country deserve that much?