Jon Lee Anderson: "King of Kings"

The best piece I’ve read about Qaddafi — such horrific, sustained lunacy — begins with these exceptional opening paragraphs:

How does it end? The dictator dies, shriveled and demented, in his bed; he flees the rebels in a private plane; he is caught hiding in a mountain outpost, a drainage pipe, a spider hole. He is tried. He is not tried. He is dragged, bloody and dazed, through the streets, then executed. The humbling comes in myriad forms, but what is revealed is always the same: the technologies of paranoia, the stories of slaughter and fear, the vaults, the national economies employed as personal property, the crazy pets, the prostitutes, the golden fixtures.

Instinctively, when dictators are toppled, we invade their castles and expose their vanities and luxuries—Imelda’s shoes, the Shah’s jewels. We loot and desecrate, in order to cut them finally, futilely, down to size. After the fall of Baghdad, I visited the gaudiest of Saddam’s palaces, examined his tasteless art, his Cuban cigars, his private lakes with their specially bred giant fish, his self-worshipping bronze effigies. I saw thirty years’ worth of bodies in secret graves, along with those of Iraqis bound and shot just hours before liberation. In Afghanistan, Mullah Omar, a despot of simpler tastes, left behind little but plastic flowers, a few Land Cruisers with CDs of Islamic music, and an unkempt garden where he had spent hours petting his favorite cow.