Dictatorship: The Wave of the Future?

by Theodore Dalrymple (November 2011)


No one ever deserved a grisly death more than the late Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, but this is only a proof – if such a proof were needed - that justice is far from the only human desideratum. Gaddafi was responsible for untold misery, its amount limited only by the relative insignificance and impotence of the country in which he seized power; but when I first saw the photograph of him taken, lying bloodied but conscious, by a French photographer (a photograph that is surely destined for such immortality as the world can confer), I felt for him what I did not think I could ever feel for him – compassion. The fact is that no one should die as he died, or be killed as he was killed.

Other dictators have met grisly ends, of course. Mussolini was strung up, Ceausescu shot and Saddam Hussein hanged, all unceremoniously and without dignity. It is possible, even, that Gaddafi’s death was not absolutely the worst suffered by a tyrant in the last hundred years. President Guillaume Sam was dragged out of the French Embassy in Port-au-Prince, in which he had taken refuge, by an enraged mob, impaled on railings, cut into pieces and his parts exhibited in the city. President Sam was no guardian angel of the rule of law: he had just had 169 political prisoners summarily executed, but this should not prevent us from accepting as a basic moral principle that impaling and cutting up people is wrong.

The President of Liberia, Samuel Kanyon Doe, was captured by the militia of the self-styled Brigadier-General Field Marshal Prince Yormie Johnson, who had him trussed up naked like a chicken and his ears cut off, his death by blood loss recorded on a video that became for a time Liberia’s greatest cultural export. Doe also was no pacifist: I visited the church in Monrovia, St Peter’s, in which he is alleged, during the last days of his presidency, to have taken part personally in the mass murder of six hundred people who had taken refuge there. The dried blood, with the silhouettes of the bodies of the massacred, was still on the floor of the church and the mounds of the graves still raw in the churchyard. Even if he did not take part personally in the massacre, he knew of it and approved it. 

Nevertheless, when I saw the video of him being tortured to death (not retribution for his wickedness but the numbers of his bank accounts was the object in view), I felt what I had fondly but no doubt mistakenly thought was natural human sympathy for him. Appalling as he undoubtedly was, his screams of agony were not such as should be deliberately extorted from any man; and what was almost as horrible, and ultimately more chilling, was the calm self-righteousness of the man who ordered the brutality. Nothing dissolves salutary moral barriers more completely than sadism in the name of an alleged higher purpose. (Johnson supposedly sought the bank account numbers to recover the money for the people of Liberia, not for himself.) 

Of course, some might say that such feelings are easy enough to indulge in for someone who has not lived under any of these dictators. To have existed for forty years, or your entire life, under someone like Gaddafi might be more than enough to overwhelm you inhibitions against vengeful cruelty. Passion has, if not its rights exactly, at least its excuses; and when I recall how misled I had been into thinking, after having spent only two weeks in Romania under the Ceausescus, that it was right that they were summarily shot, a certain reticence on my part in condemning the passions of others is in order. Of course, the Romanian revolution was more of a palace coup than it at first appeared; but in any case, the charges against the Ceausescus, such as genocide, were ridiculous and trumped up, despicable as the pair may have been. No one should be shot like stray dogs in a courtyard, as they were shot; and I became ashamed of my initial enthusiasm for their demise.

But what is the correct way to deal with fallen dictators? This is a delicate question. To put them on trial has its inconveniences and dangers, since one of the qualifications for the post of tyrant is a long and detailed memory; and since no tyranny is ever so personal that the tyrant does not need accomplices, usually many of them, if his trial is not of the merely kangaroo variety a la Ceausescu, it is clear that the ex-tyrant in the dock can spill the beans about a lot of people, many of whom will have benefited from his overthrow or even have been the leaders of it. Those about whom the beans have been thus spilt will in turn be able to spill beans, until the whole society is torn apart by an orgy of accusation and counter-accusation. Much better, then, say some, just to execute the fallen tyrant, pretend that he had acted entirely alone, and repress memories until they fade in any case.

When Gaddafi was maltreated to death by a crowd, it was said that, no matter how revolting the scene, it was a good lesson to other dictators, most notably Assad of Syria. But the lessons that people draw from events are not like the uneluctable conclusions of a syllogism; the conclusion that Assad should flee his country does not follow from the fact that the longer he stays the worse his eventual fate. Lessons in human conduct are usually ambiguous. Assad might just as well have learned from Gaddafi’s horrible fate that it is best to go down fighting, and if necessary take whole populations down with him, as that he should take the next flight to Estoril (the Portuguese resort where deposed crowned heads used to live out their enforced retirement, and potter the rest of their lives away). After all, flight does not ensure the safety of ex-dictators: Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez, the ex-strongman of El Salvador, who believed he could train his eyes to stare at the sun and that it was worse to kill an ant than a man because an ant had an eternal soul, was stabbed to death by his chauffeur years after his downfall and exile in Honduras. Anastasio Somoza was blown up in his car in Paraguay after his movements had been watched for six months. Not many dictators find a refuge as completely safe and well-guarded as Mengistu of Ethiopia has found in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. Uneasy, then, sleeps the head that has once exercised dictatorial power.

When General Pinochet was arrested in London (he had not realised that Albion, always perfidious, was now perfidious even though not in its own interests?), was he being punished for having been a brutal dictator, or for having peacefully relinquished power? From the point of view of the average Guardian-reading person, obviously the former; but from the point of view of the average dictator, the latter. Fidel Castro’s class or professional solidarity with dictators overcame his political differences with the General; and it was surely somewhat ironical that Erich Honecker, the fallen leader of the German Democratic Republic, should have chosen Chile as his country of exile while Pinochet was still commander-in-chief of the army there. Dictators must stick together.

Some dictators slip away quietly, and not a few re-invent themselves as democratic candidates in presidential elections, by no means always unsuccessfully. Often people begin to feel nostalgia for the days when they made the trains run on time, the streets were swept and there was little crime. Carlos Ibanez of Chile and Getulio Vargas of Brazil come to mind who were elected democratically after having ruled despotically. The thirst for order is at least as great as the thirst for freedom.

My contact with ex-dictators and their henchmen has been slight. I once had the idea of going round the world and interviewing the more bizarre dictators in exile (at the time, ex-dictators were both more numerous and more colourful than they are now, deposed tyrants such as Ben Ali of Tunisia seeming rather dull and ordinary by comparison), to find out what had made them tick, but I could persuade no one that the project was of sufficient interest – compared, say, with the extra-marital affairs of starlets – for him to advance me any money.

Still, I was able in one country, Guatemala, to visit a few ex-dictators and their henchmen. The reason was that they were all in the telephone directory, not in the yellow pages under the rubric of Dictators (ex) or Dictators (former), but listed in the ordinary residential pages. More surprising was that when I called, they answered the phone themselves and invited me round for a chat. Most surprising of all, perhaps, was that when I took them up on the offer, I found that there was no security procedures to be gone through, unlike say the Chicago to Atlanta, or the Bristol to Aberdeen, flights, not even so much as a check of my identity. When I rang the door, either the ex-dictator or his maid answered and ushered me straight in, with no thought that I might be an assassin or a suicide bomber. This was all very odd, because some of them had been compared to Hitler. No search of my person was ever made.

Now if I were to try to interview a supposedly democratic ex-politician of my own country, say Mr Blair, I doubt that I should approach within a hundred miles of him without voluminous and intrusive checks, and access would probably be granted only on condition that I mortgaged my house to pay for it.

What is the moral of this contrast, if there is one? Perhaps it is merely that, in a world in which even Dutch and Swedish politicians face assassination, times have changed in the direction of the self-preserving paranoia of politicians. In any case, it would be wrong to make too much of the contrast, even if sometimes I am inclined to have night thoughts about the relative freedoms to be enjoyed under British parliamentary democracy and Latin American military dictatorship, not always to the advantage of the former. This, of course, is to forget the sheer scale of the brutality of the latter.

There is, perhaps, no perfect solution to the problem of what to do with a fallen despot. To allow him to live in peaceful, and usually very prosperous, retirement seems unjust to the victims of his despotism, and is likely to embitter them. He will seem to them almost to have been rewarded for his deeds, for a prosperous retirement is the wish of any, rarely fulfilled. To treat him as a scapegoat, as if he alone were responsible for his despotism and he had no accomplices, is to create an abscess of hypocrisy and historical untruth that sooner or later will have to be opened, or will burst spontaneously. To punish not only the despot but all who co-operated with or benefited from his rule is to risk endless social conflict and violent reaction.

It might be thought that this a problem of an age that is now past; that after the Arab Spring, we are entering an age of universal democracy. I think this is the case no more than it was ever the case that history was at an end. Astonishing though it may seem, there were rumours in Europe of a possible coup in Greece as a solution to the impasse there. When disorder becomes great enough, men (as Goethe said) long for the man on the white horse, for we love order at least as much as we love liberty, for the former is a precondition of the exercise of the latter, and of much else besides. Europe, the Yugoslavia de nos jours, is becoming ungovernable, thanks to its governors. Another age of the man on the white horse might be dawning.                 


Theodore Dalrymple's latest book is Anything Goes.


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