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The unseen body of Bin Laden, the all too seen body of Gadhafi

by Dr. Michael Berenbaum

October 24, 2011 | 5:49 pm

Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi attends a ceremony marking the birth of Islam's Prophet Mohammed in Tripoli in this February 13, 2011 file photograph. Photo by REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny/Files

Last May when the US government captured and executed Osama Bin Laden, President Barack Obama took significant criticism for its decision not to show the body of the slain Al Quaeda leaders. Seeing what we have seen over the past several days with the pictures of slain Libyan leader Col..Muammar Gadhafi, I wonder if any of the critics would like to reexamine their views. Sometimes the unseen is more potent than the seen.

For those who us who have labored in the post Nuremberg trials world for international accountability of leaders who trample on human rights and destroy their own population, the appearance of a decision, however spontaneous and however local, to execute the Libyan leader rather than hold him for trial is disappointing. It does not bode well for the new Libyan ruling coalition. I would much prefer to see Gadhafi face justice in the Hague or in Tripoli and even if his defenders had employed the insanity defense, which might well have succeeded, at least we would have had a full accounting for the magnitude of his crimes.

Recall that what was far more important at Nuremberg was the detailing of the scope and scale of Nazi crimes, the very notion of accountability and not the verdicts for the individual Nazi War Criminals. Justice Robert Jackson, who took an unprecedented leave from the Supreme Court to prosecute the Nuremberg defendants said in his opening statement:

“In the prisoners’ dock sit twenty-odd broken men. Reproached by the humiliation of those they have attacked, their personal capacity for evil is forever. It is hard to perceive in these miserable men as captives the power by which as Nazi leaders they once dominated much of the world and terrified most of it. Merely as individuals, their fate is of little consequence…

“What makes this inquest significant is that these prisoners…are the living symbols of racial hatreds, of terrorism and violence, and of the arrogance and cruelty of power….Civilization can afford no compromise with the social forces which would gain renewed strength if we deal ambiguously or indecisively with the men in whom those forces now precariously survive.

The Libyan people deserved an accounting. Gadhafi’s victims also deserved an accounting. The world is better off with the Libyan dictator dead, but justice would have better been served had he been killed by a Court of law than by his captors.

And once dead, no matter how heinous his crimes – and they were heinous – his body should have been treated with dignity, not because he deserved it but because we did.

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