He certainly could play the part. Gaddafi will probably be best remembered for the figure he cut: a bizarre, mercurial oddball with dark sunglasses, wacky outfits and gelled hair. His idiosyncrasies were legendary: When he traveled, he stayed in a luxurious Bedouin tent and — like some bad Bond villain — had an entourage that included female bodyguards and a busty Ukrainian nurse.
His speeches were as long-winded as they were unintelligible. (His 2009 address at the United Nations, slated for 15 minutes, ran an hour and a half.) His ideas, if that is the right word, will be forever preserved in the Green Book, his slim political treatise that he claimed spelled out an alternative to capitalism and communism. What it was, in fact, was a pocket-size totem to his megalomania. Schoolchildren were forced to commit passages to memory; its banal and bizarre aphorisms were plastered on billboards and broadcast on radio and television each day.
Of course, the 20th-century tyrant was hardly all style and no substance. Gaddafi, after all, funded the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the Irish Republican Army and trained would-be autocrats in his dictatorship academies. And he went from terrorism paymaster to participant in 1988 when he ordered the bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, a crime that claimed 270 lives.
But the crimes that made Gaddafi a fugitive — that led him to the drainage pipe where he was reportedly hiding when captured — were those he committed against his fellow Libyans. It was his style of rule, rather than his personal tastes or even international terrorism, that made him a 20th-century totalitarian throwback.
As bizarre as he may have seemed to foreign eyes, it was his brutality at home that marked him to those who knew him best. Even among the closeted regimes of the Middle East, Libya was notoriously repressive. Gaddafi’s police state tolerated no independent press, civil society or political opposition. The security apparatus was pervasive, its membership as high as 20 percent of the population, by some estimates. Publicly criticizing Gaddafi or the regime was a death-defying act.
Long before the Arab Spring, and long before the rebels tossed the Brother Leader like a rag doll in the streets, smarter and savvier autocrats had decided that it was too costly, too risky, to be the type of dictator Gaddafi had become. Other strongmen may be repressive, but they cleverly mask that repression behind a facade of legality, procedure and process.