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October 23rd, 2011
09:00 AM ET

Letters to the President #1007: 'When dictators fall'

Reporter's Note: I write a letter every single day to President Obama.

Dear Mr. President,

I’ve been thinking back on the fall of Gadhafi this weekend, as you might guess. I’m struck by a certain juxtaposition: Between those who saw him as purely an evil man (much of the world); and those who saw him in more complex terms, the regular folks in Libya who, even if they thought he was the devil, knew he was their devil.

I’m not making light of this. Some of the things he was involved in were horrendous, despicable, and worthy of the most profound punishments we can imagine. Yet, I wonder if any culture can reduce the essence of any human being to that of a monster, and not lose some of its own humanity along the way?

I often think, when we consider such characters as pure evil, it makes it too easy for us to start grouping everyone else into similar categories. We develop a knee jerk way of seeing nothing but souls who are all good or all bad, and we lose track of the fact that most of us spend most of our lives in between; neither complete saints nor hopeless sinners.

When a Gadhafi is dragged through the streets amid a hooting throng, and killed before the day is done, it is easy to feel a rush of righteous joy. After all, we so often spend years waiting for justice when it comes to some brutal criminals; the prospect of instant punishment is satisfying in a way.

But I think we have to guard against too much celebration and self-satisfaction in such moments. For all his horrendous wrongs, he was a human being, and we have to be careful that in rightfully condemning his actions, we don’t condemn ourselves to a mob mentality that poisons our own faith in justice.

The world certainly appears to be a better place with the fall of each ruthless dictator. But I admire leaders most, including you in this case, for standing up soberly and with dignity to simply say in effect, “He is gone. Let us not dance on his grave, or parade his body. We are better than that. Let us just move on to better days.”

Hope your Sunday is going well.

Regards,

Tom

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Filed under: Letters to the President • Opinion • President Barack Obama • T1 • Tom Foreman