If you walked passed the dirt mountain in place of Old Chemistry at any point this weekend, you may have seen an American flag flying high from a steel pole situated at its peak. It is unclear who placed it there and why; someone may be commemorating the death of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, or maybe it is simply an attempt to be humorous at the expense of others’ misguided patriotism. Either way, the image of an American flag flying on campus and the influx of opinions surrounding Gaddafi’s extraordinarily well-documented death combine to form a striking reflection of our current relationship with the world around us. It is also a telling test of how this relationship has influenced our moral codes.
This year has taught younger generations, and at the very least reminded older ones, that we are, as a nation and as individuals, all capable of celebrating the death of another human being. The reasons seem to range from the positive political and sociological effects of his or her death to thoughts of pure revenge. The death of Osama bin Laden lured this fact from hiding, and Gaddafi’s death clinched the kill.
Within minutes of the world reading the bare bones, three-paragraph Reuters’ story, the Internet kicked into high gear. Photo memes detailing Gaddafi’s likeness to Carlos Santana flooded Facebook news feeds, while hundreds upon hundreds of links detailing the mainstream news media’s scramble to keep up overflowed across our other social media extensions.
The events of 2011 splashing front pages and crammed into news alerts are now, for what feels like the first time for the upcoming generation, seemingly more violent, complex and extreme than any cliché Hollywood action movie or video game war-movie replication. The cell phone video detailing Gaddafi’s final breathing moments is still floating around easily-accessible websites, and it exemplifies this moral dichotomy—we have the ability to watch a person die in real time, even someone millions of people hate, forcing us to evaluate both our personal feelings concerning murder and generalized ideals about guilt, crime, punishment and moral responsibility.
The largest looming question being forced upon us now is whether or not it is morally right to celebrate someone’s death, no matter how hated they are or how disgusting their atrocities have been. The obvious argument for the death of Gaddafi, and any other person deemed “evil” by history, is that he deserved his end. One could say that a man like Gaddafi committed actions that warranted the most violent punishment possible, one now epitomized by the video footage of Libyan rebels slamming the butts of their rifles into their ousted leader’s bullet-wound ridden head.
The counterargument is that the world we live in now should promote a system of laws that ascribe to moral codes, that no matter what a human being does, he or she should be subject to an ordered trial and subsequent punishment. That argument was enflamed by the deaths of Bin Laden and Gaddafi, but also by the assassination of American citizen and Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen. He outspokenly advocated violence against the United States, posing a threat to our national security, but by putting him to death without a trial, President Obama assumed the role of judge. Legality aside, it’s hard to draw the line between the murder of a human being and the elimination of a threat.
This dilemma is at the core of how the world’s tumultuous tides are interwoven into how we, as onlookers and participants in history, view common threads of right and wrong and draw definitive lines through subjects like crime and punishment.
For Americans, the Libyan civil war is intrinsically tied to how we view our own involvement in one of the most violent chapters of the Arab Spring. United States military action began March 19 after the United Nations Security Council issued a resolution calling for an international effort to protect Libyan citizens. President Barack Obama wrote to Congress on March 21 stating the U.S. military goals in Libya, though not explicitly asking for authorization. He defended the U.S. military strikes as necessary measures in protecting the Libyan people, though they would be limited, he said, and would not work to remove Gaddafi from power. Still, he failed to outline an ultimate goal, and even after the U.S. transferred the responsibility to NATO, U.S. military operations bolstered the rebel fighters, enabling them to prevail. It’s undeniable that without NATO forces, the Libyan struggle would have either crumbled or moved further from resolution.
It is our obligation as global citizens, many say, to prevent atrocities, to protect those that can’t protect themselves. That concept circulates the United Nations under the name Responsibility to Protect, or R2P, and it’s difficult to counter. An international law mandating nation states to act in cases like the Libyan struggle would work to prevent the atrocities of our world’s past from occurring again. But when nations insert themselves into domestic struggles, no matter what the intention, the moral line is blurred. The United States may have accelerated the fight, abating the violence that could otherwise have ensued much longer, but that leaves us, in part, responsible for the brutal murder of a man in the streets who, now infamously, begged for his life.
On Sunday night, the story detailing how Gaddafi now sits rotting on display in Misrata is but a few clicks away, with any physical connection to the events nonexistent thanks to thousands of miles of ocean water and a somewhat-understandable apathy of a country nowhere near the friction of real revolution. However, to think that these events only tangentially effect us is to do a disservice to yourself, and ignoring their importance and the importance of the questions they pose only further downplays how integral and difficult these aspects are to our moral responsibility.
But to say that there is no right or wrong when evaluating these questions, questions of murder without trial and government-bankrolled revolutions, is to ignore the inherent moral responsibility within every individual. While there may be no universal answer, there is certainly one that must be found to help define how we go forward, and it’s our responsibility, as a nation, as individuals and as human beings, to think hard about these questions before celebrating a death, or letting cold rationality trump heartfelt emotion, and moving on to the next necessary evil.