If you’re going to kill a bad man, you might as well put on a show. As I understand it, that’s the thesis Simon Sebeg Motefiore pushes in his recent New York Times essay on the death of Libyan dictator Colonel Muammar Qadaffi, whose killers recorded their handiwork for posterity on their cell phones. If nothing else, doing away with a tyrant publicly offers proof of his death — a necessary condition for anyone hoping to formalize the regime change. Montefiore writes:
Only death can end both the spell to bewitch and the prerogative to dominate — and sometimes, not even death can snuff out power. “The terror inspired by Caligula’s reign,” wrote Suetonius, “could be judged by the sequel.” Romans were so terrified of the emperor that it was not enough to assassinate him. They wanted to see him dead: fearing it was a trick and lacking cellphone footage, they had to be convinced. The mile-long line of Libyans who were keen to see Colonel Qaddafi’s cadaver in its shop-refrigerator-tomb would understand this perfectly.
Montefore may be right in the short run, but he forgets that time has a way of re-inflating the reputations of even the worst tyrants. In the mini “making of” documentary that appears on the Last King of Scotland DVD, Ugandan citizens express a variety of opinions about Idi Amin. Some object strongly to his repressive, near-genocidal approach to law enforcement; others admire his swagger. In Moscow, while visiting the state burial grounds just outside the Kremlin, I noticed that one grave, more often than any other, sported fresh — okay, paper — flowers. The stiff with the secret admirer wasn’t Bill Heywood, or John Reed, or even Yuri Gagarin. It was Stalin.
Granted, Stalin and Amin died peacefully. (Amin claimed to have learned the date of his death as a young man, in a dream. Nobody’s been able to prove it was the wrong one.) But even when they do die violently and publicly, at the hands of outraged citizens, results are mixed, at best. While on their thrones, both Charles I of England and Louis XVI of France were thought out-of-touch numbskulls by the many and tyrants by groups too large to call the few. The composure and magnaminity both displayed on the scaffold won rave reviews from the mobs. Both of their dynasties were restored.
Both restorations made a certain amount of political sense, but neither would have been possible, I’d argue, without the magic of martyrdom — a secret we Christians have known for quite a while. The word for people who knowingly defy danger to serve a greater good derives from the Greek martys, or “witness”; it contains an explicit promise of spectacle. If relatively few Christians won the palm, many others missed despite a good-faith effort. Tertullian reports that a mob of Christians presented themselves to the governor of Asia, professed their faith, and demanded the governor kill then, per imperial policy. After executing a few, the governor lost his taste for persecuting and told the survivors that, beginning then, martyrdom would be a strictly self-service affair in his province.
To get a sense of martyrdom’s tenacity in the Christian imagination, consider Blessed Andreas of Rinn and St. Philomena. Both began as undistinguished, crumbling skeletons – bags of bones, really — that came suddenly to the attention of Church authorities. Pious mythmakers quickly named them, and crowed their lives with thrilling and gruesome ends. Andreas had been sold by his father to a roving pack of Jews, who killed him and drained his blood in an occult ritual. Philomena, a fourth-century AD Greek aristocrat, had chosen death over marriage to the pagan tetrarch Diocletian.
Their stories became as palpable as if people had actually witnessed their witness. In no time at all, shrines flew up, and — as the Lady requested at Lourdes –processions came.
Anybody can be a martyr, regardless of how he actually lived or died, provided somebody wants him to be one. In 1981, the Orthodox Church outside Russia canonized Nikolai II, Russia’s last tsar-autocrat, along with his family. Pilgrims flocked to the tomb of England’s King Edward II, a lazy mimbo who lost Scotland at the battle of Bannockburn and bestowed unearned offices on his lovers. Both these men were done in furtively– one pistoled in a Ekaterinburg cellar, the other treated to an unnecessary colonoscopy with a red-hot poker at Berkeley Castle.
Of course, other faiths have their own traditions of martyrdom, and there are secular martyrs — at times, various camps would have claimed Che Guevara or Lev Trotsky. With wishful thinking such a powerful force, the one way in which modern-day recording technology (and social media) could tweak the martyr-making process is by weeding out candidates who died badly. In Angels with Dirty Faces, priest Pat O’Brien talks convicted killer James Cagney into throwing a hissy-fit on his march to the electric chair. If Cagney looks like a coward, O’Brien reasons, then Leo Gorcey, Billy Hallop and the rest of the Dead End kids will be less likely to follow him into a life of crime. Newsmen noted the breakdown,“ROCKY DIES YELLOW,” screamed the headlines, and the kids showed up for choir practice on schedule.
In the video — which I won’t post here; anyone who wants to can find it online — Qadaddi doesn’t look particularly composed or heroic. But then, his captors, who become his killers, look even worse. Screaming and whooping, a crowd of them holding down a 68-year-old man, they look more like a flash mob than the hope of any republic. Pictures can lie; digital can lie. But to construct a pious myth around any of the principal players in the final act of the Qadaffi drama, people are going to have to lie a whole lot faster, and a whole lot better, than either.