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Paul Thomas is a Weekend Herald columnist

Paul Thomas: Mob justice abhorrent but understandable

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Quade Cooper. Photo / Dean Purcell
Quade Cooper. Photo / Dean Purcell

The internet is a wonderful thing. With a few clicks of the mouse you can be watching the trailer for the upcoming Tintin movie or a video of the Rolling Stones performing Honky Tonk Woman in front of 250,000 people at Hyde Park in 1969.

Or, if you're so inclined, the last moments of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, the tyrant - he preferred the term "Brother Leader" - who gained power in a bloodless coup two months after the Stones rocked Hyde Park, and was prepared to wallow in blood to hang on to it.

An individual suffering at the hands of a mob is a horrible sight and this is no exception.

Gaddafi was nothing if not a narcissist, so the realisation that the ever-present turban or fez concealed advanced hair loss provides only momentary relief.

Otherwise the footage shows a maelstrom of hysteria, blood lust and the bewildered terror of a despot disorientated by his 40-year cult of personality and attendant sycophancy, yet aware that his tormentors will be as merciless as he would have been had the roles been reversed.

It's hard to disagree with French philosopher and writer Bernard-Henri Levy that "there is, in the spectacle of Gaddafi's lynching, something revolting". By killing Gaddafi in such a manner, he argues, the rebels have lost the moral high ground: "I fear that it will pollute the essential morality of an insurrection that had been, up to that point, almost exemplary."

Levy then proceeds to undermine his argument. First, he refers to instances where insurrectionists have dished out summary justice to autocrats - Mussolini, Ceausescu - without it setting the tone for life after the dictator.

And while at pains to stress his identification with the rebel cause, Levy reveals his detachment. Speaking by phone and through an interpreter to the commander of the unit that flushed Gaddafi from the sewer, Levy asks: "Do you know the difference between Caesar and Saladin?" This is the prelude to a lecture on the importance of magnanimity in victory.

"The commander seemed to understand," writes Levy, demonstrating yet again that no one does effortless condescension like a French celebrity/intellectual. I suspect the commander just wanted to get off the phone, preferring to hunt down Gaddafi's henchmen than listen to a history lesson delivered from somewhere on the Left Bank.

To expect young men who have risked their lives and probably their families' lives by joining the insurrection and then fought their way across Libya encountering frequent examples of the regime's barbarity to forego revenge is to disregard human nature and the dehumanising effects of four decades of totalitarianism.

The Daily Telegraph's Mark Reason was equally disapproving of mob rule in his condemnation of the treatment dished out to Wallaby Quade Cooper during the World Cup: "New Zealand does not deserve to see Cooper's talent again. The jeering with which the man has been received by the Kiwis and the vile abuse he has received online have been unacceptable."

At the risk of appearing callous, I'd suggest that, like Levy, Reason is adopting a position of lofty detachment which ignores the simple reality that actions have consequences. Like Gaddafi, Cooper got what he asked for (except for the online abuse which, after all, is easy enough to avoid).

Neither Gaddafi nor Cooper was ambushed; both could have taken steps to avoid or mitigate their fates. As Levy concedes, Gaddafi could have negotiated an exit, thereby avoiding a destructive civil war. Instead he chose to "bleed his people to the very end".

In the first week of the tournament, former Wallaby captain Nick Farr-Jones called Cooper a "boofhead" and "dope" for going out of his way to needle the All Black captain and revel in his public enemy number one status.

Describing Cooper's conduct as disrespectful and arrogant, Farr-Jones warned: "There's no doubt it could come back and bite you and it won't just be him, it will be the whole squad that will be impacted by it."

Indeed. Cooper knew he'd stirred up the Kiwi public, but rather than defuse the situation by offering an olive branch, he decided he rather liked being the man we loved to hate.

He seriously underestimated the forces he'd unleashed. Who can doubt that the All Blacks' relentless semifinal assault on the Wallabies was partly inspired by Cooper's calculated disrespect? Who can doubt that a significant factor in the disintegration of his game was the hostility and derision he was subjected to every time he set foot on the field?

New Zealanders are a fair-minded people. They were sorry to see Cooper suffer a bad injury in the bronze medal match. Providing he's learned his lesson, they'll now get off his back. As with Gaddafi, rough justice has been done.

- NZ Herald

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