Friday, October 21, 2011

Sic Semper Tyrannis

"Sic semper tyrannis — Thus always to tyrants."

Latin phrase

When I heard the news that Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi had been killed, it came as no real surprise to me.

It's been this way as long as I can remember — and, according to the undocumented history of the Latin phrase, it goes back at least to the time of Julius Caesar, when he was killed with the words "sic semper tyrannis!"

Modern historians have suggested that phrase wasn't really spoken when Caesar was killed, that it was a literary invention that came into existence upon the re–telling of his assassination. To my knowledge, there is no record of what was actually said (if anything was) when Brutus stabbed Caesar.

There is no real record of what Caesar said as he was dying, either. According to the play that Shakespeare wrote about the assassination roughly 1,500 years after the fact, Caesar uttered a brief phrase — "Et tu, Brute?" (which, in English, means, "And you, Brutus?" or "You, too, Brutus?"), suggesting that he was acquainted with his assailant.

I have seen no evidence that Gadhafi knew his killer(s) so "sic semper tyrannis" may not be entirely appropriate to this particular case, but the people of Libya knew him all too well. There can be no doubt that Gadhafi's was a brutal regime, as brutal as any dictatorship in the memory of any living person.

It isn't always appropriate to apply that phrase. The most blatant example of that, I think, was when John Wilkes Booth spoke those words after shooting Abraham Lincoln in the back of the head at point–blank range. Few people, even at the time, considered Lincoln a tyrant.

Also, I would argue that it is inappropriate as a state motto — which it is for the commonwealth of Virginia. But I guess that really isn't my business since I don't live in Virginia (neither, for that matter, do I live in New Hampshire, and I've never really felt that state's motto — "Live free or die" — was particularly appropriate, either — although a persuasive case can be made for its use since it is rooted in early American history).

There clearly are times, though, when "sic semper tyrannis" fits the circumstances. The phrase comes to mind when one hears of notorious dictators who have been killed or driven from power by the people who have been subjugated.

For example, opinions of the invasion of Iraq were sharply divided, but few people would disagree that Saddam Hussein was a tyrant who deserved to be overthrown.

Likewise, it came to mind in the spring when Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in Egypt. In the 1980s, when Ferdinand Marcos was driven from the Philippines, it came to mind.

I guess it even came to mind when Osama bin Laden was killed in early May — although "tyrant" and "terrorist" are not really interchangeable terms.

No, that phrase isn't always applied appropriately — like the modern tendency for followers of a political ideology to compare leaders of other ideologies to Hitler and the Nazis — but I suspect there are few who would disagree with its application to Gadhafi.

He ruled Libya for more than four decades, and violence was a way of life for him. He sought to give the world the impression that the Libyan people were really in charge via "a nationwide system of congresses and committees," as Ronald Bruce St John writes at, but, in truth, he controlled things with an iron fist.

Nearly all Libyans under the age of 50 have no memory of life under anyone but Gadhafi, but, on Thursday, they celebrated the opportunity to find out what that might be like. I saw footage on the news of Libyans celebrating in the streets, in their cars. Most looked like they couldn't have been born yet when Gadhafi seized power.

It will be the responsibility of the United States and the other republics of the world to help Libya take its first fledgling steps into freedom. That is going to be a considerable undertaking, considering the many crises facing the world's economies.

No one knows yet what forms this challenge may take in the coming months or years. It may require money or military support. At times, lip service may be sufficient. All that is certain is that such a transition will be bumpy. It always is. It will require a long–term commitment.

In the end, the world's republics, like parents watching their children grow, will have to let Libya make its own mistakes and carve out its own path. Libya's path will never be the same as the one the early Americans walked more than 200 years ago, and Libya's experiences with its new government almost certainly will not duplicate the experiences of any other existing republic in the world.

Parents are often regarded as tyrants by their children. Over time, most prove to their children that they are not tyrants by gradually giving them more freedom to make and learn from their mistakes. It is often painful for parents, but they know they must do it, just as they know their children will never be carbon copies of themselves.

The United States will offer advice to Libya in the years to come, just as a parent would offer advice to a child, but Americans must be prepared to support Libya's maturation as a republic even if they don't always approve of the shape that republic may take.

Then, perhaps, Libya — and the rest of the world — will truly understand what has happened.

What is happening.

Sic semper tyrannis.

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