Picturing the Dead: The Politics of Political Assassination from Che to Qaddafi
October 24, 2011
Jon Lee Anderson / The New Yorker
Moments before the Argentine revolutionary Ernesto Che Guevara was murdered in Bolivia, in 1967, a CIA agent on the scene told his executioner, a Bolivian sergeant, to shoot Che from the neck down, so as to make photographs appear that Guevara had died of his wounds in battle. With Muammar Qaddafi's death, it's clear we live in different times, in which shocking images can be recorded on cell-phone cameras and instantly spread, unedited, around the world.
NEW YORK, NY (October 20, 2011) -- Moments before the Argentine revolutionary Ernesto Che Guevara was murdered by his captors in Bolivia, in 1967, the CIA agent who was on the scene told his executioner, a Bolivian sergeant, to shoot Che from the neck down, so as to make it appear that he had died of his wounds in battle.
Thus it was done; it took years for the truth of what had really happened to Che to emerge, even though, as it later turned out, the CIA man could not resist posing for photographs with Che when he was still alive. This was a highly risky thing to do, of course. But that was the age of film, not YouTube, and the CIA man's prints and negatives of the episode were kept under lock and key for twenty years. It was only when he chose to tell the truth about Che's execution that his visual evidence, in the form of those chilling photos, emerged, too.
Even after their publication, however, they were suppressed in Cuba itself, where Che had lived and become famous as one of Fidel Castro's closest revolutionary comrades. So were the photos of Che's dead body, which were seen by millions around the world in the days after his death.
I once asked Che's widow why that was so, and she explained that it was not only a matter of seemliness; it was also because of a decision that had been made at the very "highest level" in Cuba immediately after Che's death, one which she agreed with. It was based upon the idea that as long Che was not seen to be dead, he could somehow remain eternally alive in the minds and hearts of new generations of Cubans and other young people around the world, who might yet seek to follow his example in the cause of the revolution.
We live in different times, in which everything under the sun is being recorded on cell-phone cameras -- including deaths, and the death throes of globally renowned, iconic figures. The images are then distributed and witnessed by millions of people around the world, sometimes within hours or even minutes of the event.
Muammar Qaddafi's death today -- in volatile, still unexplained circumstances, at the hands of Libyan rebels in Surt -- is the second in a series of a new genre of "before your eyes" news events that could be called Deaths of Former Dictators. The first, of course, was the unforgettable cell-phone video of former Iraq dictator Saddam Hussein's hanging in Baghdad, in 2006, surrounded by a taunting rabble of his enemies.
We watch the images streaming out of Surt today, disjointed as they are, and try to examine them forensically so as to gather the narrative of what actually happened. There are many claims being made, and some are conflicting; and at times the images seem to contradict them. We heard first that Qaddafi was captured alive, then wounded, then died of his wounds.
One man on the scene told a reporter that he saw Qaddafi being shot in the abdomen. But we see an image of a man, apparently dead, who appears to be Qaddafi, his face still unbloodied, being rolled over on the ground, being stripped of his shirt by rebels; their feet and hands move rapidly around him; they shout.
In another clip, they are violently kicking him. There is still another image, however -- the first, in fact, to circulate -- in which Qaddafi is covered with blood. He is still wearing clothing, and apparently being propped up between some fighters; is he still alive, or is he dying? The image doesn't make this clear.
Most grim of all is the video of Qaddafi that eventually made its way online, showing him alive, looking confused, being pulled violently to his feet from the back of a pickup truck full of fighters, amidst screams of "Allahu Akhbar" -- God is great -- and manhandled violently by the mob. The video then cuts out. Presumably, that is when he was killed.
Now, too, the news is coming in of the reported capture, wounding, or possible death of Qaddafi's son Moatassem, who was said to have been with him in Surt. There are no images yet circulating to match against the reports, but surely soon they will come too.
And so, too, presumably, will visual evidence of the physical health of Qaddafi's other son and heir-apparent, Seif-al Islam. Suddenly, after weeks of silence as to his whereabouts, within hours of the reported death of his father in Surt, there are reports that he, too, has been captured and wounded, or killed, but elsewhere in the country.
Whatever the circumstances that made them possible, the images of dead Qaddafis are bound to have a huge effect amongst Libyans, just as did the audio broadcasts of Muammar Qaddafi's recorded voice these past weeks.
The persistence of Qaddafi's voice -- unmistakably his, defiant and threatening, very much alive -- was even more unsettling than if he had maintained a televisual presence, somehow, because it allowed him to cling to his aura of invincibility that had been built up over forty years.
Invisible, Qaddafi could be everywhere and nowhere at once, a potential phoenix yet to arise from Libya's ashes. The image of Qaddafi dying or dead on the ground, being kicked by his killers, however, has put paid to all that.
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