Violating the Body of Gadhafi: Dead Body Politics

First, start here Gadhafi Still On Show, Rotting as Wrangling Goes On.  I should note that this article is being updated regularly, so the title might be different now.  In any case, the short story is this: For four days, in “a mockery of a traditional lying in state,” Gadhafi’s body lay rotting for public view.

Fighters guarding Gaddafi’s darkening body and that of his son Mo’tassim and his former army chief had placed plastic sheeting under them as fluids leaked into the market cold store in Misrata where they had been taken after their capture and killing near Gaddafi’s home town of Sirte on Thursday.

With the door constantly opening to allow a procession of onlookers, the refrigeration unit failed to stop rapid decomposition. Guards handed out surgical face masks against the stench and had sprayed disinfectant over the corpses overnight.

This may read as horrifying to many of us, and from any religious or moral perspective on the dead, it should.  And yet, it is not unfamiliar.  As Verdery brilliantly writes in The Political Lives of Dead Bodies: Reburial and Postsocialist Change, “…political transformation is often symbolized through manipulating bodies,” (1999:28).  While Verdery wrote about postsocialist national movements that venerated or violated dead leaders in order to recreate state identities, an entirely new edition of the book could be written about what has taken place in the past decade in the middle east.

First, in a perfect example of Verdery’s ideas about manipulating the dead or symbols of the dead as a way of rewriting, unwriting, and reclaiming history, the Iraqis pulled down the statue of Saddam Hussein. Verdery, again: “Statues are dead people cast in bronze or carved in stone.  They symbolize a specific famous person while in a sense also being the body of that person….Tearing it down [the statue] not only removes that specific body from the landscape, as if to excise it from history, but also proves that because it can be torn down, no god protects it,” (1999: 5).  The tearing down of Hussein’s statue was clearly such a case.  His case is all the more interesting since his final demise was so carefully controlled and private.  He was tried and executed within the law.  His execution was intended to be private, rather than public. The tearing down of the statue was the closest his own people would ever come to bringing about his demise.

Then, there was the death of Osama Bin Laden.  Unlike Saddam Hussein’s death, Bin Laden was executed in the night and buried at sea.  There was no public witness at all.  He was not executed by his own people, as he ran no country.  There was no trial to satisfy any public call for justice.  His final resting place was selected in part as somewhere inaccessible for later groups to come and venerate.  He was, essentially, erased from the landscape.  As he was not a national figure, there were no statutes to tear down.  There is no “Ozymandias” to revere (see poem at end of post).

And now, we have the death of Gadhafi.  His actual death is still murky; captured alive, he then died at the hands of someone, either an individual or by mob action.  More details will emerge in the weeks to come which may  modify this story, and those details, like in other political deaths, will be tightly controlled by the new regime.  In any case, what happened after his death is another example, perhaps the most classic, of how the dead body (like the statue of Saddam), came to represent a final political statement and violation.  Put on display, mocking traditional funeral services, viscerally rotting, dripping, and smelling, the body became a last stage of battle, a final way to control Gaddafi’s fate, message, and place in history. Now buried in the dessert (in a secret location, yet still more discoverable than Bin Laden’s final resting place), he has been removed from show.  Yet he will still remain the dictator who was left to rot, powerless, abused, and unprotected by any god, before his people.  He was denied a timely proper burial, and thus perhaps denied also any lasting claim to the land, the nation, and the people.  Rather than being erased like Bin Laden, he was purposefully held up, a spectacle of lost power, and then discarded.  This is a powerful statement for a new regime to control. His body, persona, and legacy, have been violated.

There is much  more that could be said here.  Perhaps Verdery will write a new book.  Perhaps I will say more later.  In the meantime, I leave with this poem, which has always resonated on this topic for me:


By Percy Bysse Shelley

I met a traveler from an antique land

Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert…

Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal these words appear:

My name is Ozymandius, King of Kings,

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains.

Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Verdery, Katherine.  1999 The Political Lives of Dead Bodies: Reburial and Postsocialist Change. New York: Columbia University Press. I highly recommend this book.

2 thoughts on “Violating the Body of Gadhafi: Dead Body Politics

  1. Since Gaddafi was killed and captured, I have been struck by the juxtaposition between the reaction to his death and the reaction to the death recently of Al-Awlaki, which was similar to what you describe for Bin Laden. The UN demanded an investigation of the TNC of Gaddafi’s death, but there were veritable cricket chirps when the United States killed Al-Awlaki. There should be something alarming to all of us that legal semantics allow for summary executions when the polity responsible are powerful nation-states such as the US.

  2. Fascinating! The use of bodies- or in the case of statues, body proxies- is a really interesting political artifact. BTW, “Ozymandias” has been one of my favorite poems since middle school.

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