Moammar Gadhafi, the erratic, provocative dictator who ruled Libya for 42 years, crushing opponents at home while cultivating the wardrobe and looks befitting an aging rock star, met a vengeful and violent death Thursday at the hands of the Libyan forces that drove him from power.
In death, as in life, his circumstances proved startling, with jerky video images showing him captured, bloody, and disheveled, but alive. A separate clip showed his half-naked upper body, with eyes staring vacantly and what appeared to be a gunshot wound to the head, as jubilant fighters fired into the air. In a third video, posted on YouTube, excited fighters hovered around his lifeless-looking body, posing for photographs and yanking his limp head up and down by the hair.
Throughout his rule, Gadhafi, 69, sanctioned spasms of grisly violence and frequent bedlam, even he sought to leverage his nation’s immense oil wealth into an outsize role on the world stage.
He embraced a string of titles: “the brother leader,” “the guide to the era of the masses,” “the king of kings of Africa” and — his most preferred — “the leader of the revolution.”
But the labels pinned on him by others tended to stick the most. Former President Ronald Reagan called him “the mad dog of the Middle East.” Former President Anwar Sadat of neighboring Egypt pronounced Gadhafi “the crazy Libyan.”
Even as his dominion over Libya crumbled with surprising speed, he refused to countenance the fact that most Libyans despised him. He placed blame for the uprising on foreign intervention — a U.N. Security Council resolution intended to defend civilians became the contentious basis for NATO airstrikes on his troops.
“I tell the coward crusaders: I live in a place where you can’t get me,” he taunted in one of many defiant speeches after the uprising against his rule started in February. “I live in the hearts of millions.”
Gadhafi was a 27-year-old junior officer when he led the bloodless coup that deposed Libya’s monarch in 1969. Soon afterward, he began styling himself a desert nomad philosopher, publishing from 1976 to 1979 the three volumes of his Green Book, which offered his “third universal theory” to improve on capitalism and socialism. He received dignitaries in his signature sprawling white tent, which he erected wherever he went: Rome, Paris and, after much controversy, New York, in 2009.
Inside, its quilted walls might be printed with traditional motifs like palm trees and camels or embroidered with his own sayings.
Gadhafi declared that his political system of permanent revolution would sweep away capitalism and socialism. But he hedged his bets by financing and arming a cornucopia of violent organizations, including the Irish Republican Army and African guerrilla groups, and he became an international pariah after his government was linked to deadly terrorist attacks, particularly the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am jet over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 270 people.