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Gadhafi: Another Dead Despot, Another Hidden Body

Moammar Gadhafi’s secret burial adds another chapter on how victors treat the bodies of their opposition’s leadership.
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The fear that troublesome political figures can create mayhem in death as well as life leads to creative decisions on their final resting places. The most recent example is the desert burial for Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, who has been planted in some undisclosed location by the provisional government that toppled him (with a little help from NATO).

Gadhafi’s treatment after his capture, both in the quick and in death, has opened a Pandora’s box of questions. But after his rotting corpse required its less-than dignified display in a freezer to be cut short, descriptions of his secret burial — “a simple burial with sheikhs attending,” the National Transitional Council promised — suggest niceties were observed.

How the victors handle the bodies of the deceased has been a question of public policy at least since the time of Polyneices, Colin Murphy explained for earlier this year after the U.S. dropped Osama bin Laden’s body into the drink somewhere.

That the tomb may become a focus for future discontent has been the driving force behind keeping the location secret. Murphy, a Dublin-based journalist, recounted the words of Pádraig Pearse at the 1915 funeral of a Fenian leader that the British had allowed a proper burial by his people. “The fools, the fools, the fools. They have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.”

Contrast Gadhafi’s treatment with that of Saddam Hussein, whose burial in his home town created perhaps the only place where he can be openly mourned. Writing a little less than a year after Hussein’s ugly public execution, the New York Times’ John F. Burns described a place that had not become a shrine to the resistance but still drew a few of those fabled dead-enders to pledge to continue his fight.

Whether the burial place be made public or not, treating the late Libyan dictator’s remains with dignity is important for Libya, says Hamid Dabashi, a literature professor at Columbia University. “Treat Gaddafi’s body with dignity not because he deserved it. But because the Libyan people need it,” Dabashi writes for Al-Jazeera. “They must commence the rest of their history with a sense of self-dignity, of triumphant pride. That self-dignity is now determined by how they will treat the dead body of Colonel Gaddafi. Treat that body not as the fallen tyrant deserved, but as the future of your children deserves.”

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