Should Colonel Gaddafi have been allowed to live?

Gaddafi’s death raises moral questions about whether he should have been put on trial or not. EPA/Rehan Khan

Muammar Gaddafi met his end after being cornered in a Sirte drainage pipe, having fled from a NATO air-strike on his convoy. Questions about exactly how he died - whether caught in crossfire or summarily executed by his captors - have yet to be answered.

But one thing is clear – Gaddafi’s death has removed any opportunity to put him on trial for his role in over forty years of oppressive rule in Libya, and to identify what punishment might be justly imposed on him.

The Colonel’s death was received by some approving voices, including that of the Australian Prime Minister. Julia Gillard reacted by proclaiming that “you live by the sword, you die by the sword”.

Others were less enthusiastic. Many believe that democratic values require us to follow a proper legal process. This belief might be defended even if the verdict seems like a foregone conclusion, as in Gaddafi’s case.

On a rather separate note, it is also likely that Gaddafi possessed information that might have resolved questions about the terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. With his death, the likelihood of ever gaining this information has diminished dramatically.

Informative claims

What is notable is that those who regret Gaddafi’s death have usually offered clear reasons for why they feel this way. One thing that is striking about views such as Prime Minister Gillard’s is that less effort is made to supply such precision.

As with metaphors generally, it is hard to pin down what Gillard’s claim about “living by the sword” is actually communicating. It hovers between a claim about what Gaddafi morally deserved, and a suggestion that after living in a reckless and self-serving way, one must expect some sort of violent come-uppance. This second claim might be true, but need not say anything about morality.

Gillard could perhaps clarify her view if asked to. But relying on a phrase like “live by the sword, die by the sword” is an unwelcome attempt to summarise a complex moral situation with a media-friendly slogan.

Morality and justice

Justice, viewed in isolation, may have required that Gaddafi had been kept alive long enough to stand trial. This leaves it open whether a legal process would have established that death was an appropriate punishment.

But when we ask whether Gaddafi ought to have lived, we are probably asking more than just a moral question. And to the extent that we are asking a moral question, we are not just asking about what Gaddafi deserved, or what punishment was just.

We can only speculate as to what difference Gaddafi’s continued survival would have made to the development of a peaceful future in Libya.

But it is arguable that a prolonged trial at The Hague would have frustrated values other than justice. For example, stability and confidence within a new democracy can be less easy to achieve when an ex-dictator retains some sort of voice in the world.

Should Gaffadi have lived?

When faced with questions such as this, the best we can do is try to identify what values are at stake. We can then ask how they might be weighed against each other.

Of course, this is hard. But relying on metaphors will only take us further from the sort of informative answer we should want.