NEW YORK — It may be true, it may be myth. But in 1967, when Che Guevara faced the Bolivian army sergeant who was about to execute him, history records the legendary revolutionary's final words like this: "Shoot, coward, you are only going to kill a man."
Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, Romania's Nicolae Ceausescu, Liberia's Samuel Doe, Benito Mussolini and, now, Moammar Gadhafi. No matter how much a mythologized despot or mastermind builds up a cult of personality in life, when an undignified death arrives, the incontrovertible reality is hard to avoid: We are, in the end, merely lumps of flesh.
What's different today is that sometimes the world gets to see it.
Exhibit A: the surreal odyssey of Gadhafi's violent ending over the past few days. The ruthless strongman, who for four decades erected giant billboards and intricate mosaics to his own glory, exited the stage in a series of chaotic, deeply disturbing bursts of amateur video.
First we saw his battered corpse, enmeshed in the chaos of revolution's final throes in his hometown. Then video emerged of him alive, bloodied, mumbling, struggling to survive as revolutionaries splayed him upon a hood as a trophy. Finally, there he was laid out, shirtless, on a brown floral twin mattress in a shopping-mall freezer; his fellow Libyans lined up and gawked. A blusterer and preener for so many years, Gadhafi had been laid low, rendered small.
"When we captured him, he was like a child," said Hassan Doua, a commander in Libya whose fighters found Gadhafi in Sirte. "He hardly looked us in the eye. It was very hard for us to believe this man was the reason for all the killing."
Now, a new, unpredictable element has emerged. The potent combination of cellphone video and the social media network that transmits it around the world. As with the ghostly phone-cam images of Saddam Hussein's disorderly execution in late 2006, the emerging medium turned a despot's death and its aftermath into a globally distributed snuff film.
In death, these commanding figures are, at last, human — no longer cocooned by the carefully calibrated facades that their power allowed them to create. It's like the American celeb-magazine features that find common ground between famous people and the rest of the world — "Stars: They're Just Like Us." But in these leaders' cases, the twisted notoriety of their demises brought them down to size.
"Death is the ultimate take-down," says Mary Roach, author of "Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers."
"It's a powerful, visceral verification of that basic truth that we are all just flesh and blood, that even the most powerful and seemingly omnipotent among us are in fact as vulnerable as children," she says.
Which, of course, is how all humans encounter their own ends — with no firsthand knowledge of what lies beyond. Images like those of Gadhafi before and after he died are a jarring reminder of death's informality, which humans often struggle to hide. It's also a weird intimacy: There is perhaps nothing more personal than the moments just before death and the hours after it. That we can be privy to these moments at all — let alone the degrading expression of them, controlled and disseminated by one's enemies — is visceral.
This notion holds true even with Osama bin Laden, whose death photos President Barack Obama decided not to release. "We don't trot out this stuff as trophies," Obama told CBS' "60 Minutes" afterward. But though no one beyond a small group saw the postmortem images of his body, even the loose contours of description — shot dead in his bedroom at night, his wife by his side, porn found in nearby computers — undercut the global-mastermind legend that al-Qaida's leader spent two decades crafting.
Sometimes, in more controlled circumstances, a mythic figure's body is used to amplify his reign rather than reduce it. Even after decades of decay, the preserved corpses of Lenin and Mao still lie on display in the lands they changed irrevocably. They serve as reminders that the human body is a malleable symbol for those who control it. Of course, in those two cases the leaders' governments survived them and endured for many years.
Whatever ultimately happens with Gadhafi's body, the impact of its visibility will endure. Christopher Hitchens, writing in Slate about his objections to the Libyan leader's end, nevertheless acknowledged the sentiment of many in the Arab world: "At the close of an obscene regime," he wrote, "it is natural for people to hope for something like an exorcism. It is satisfying to see the cadaver of the monster and be sure that he can't come back."
That's the very definition of "habeas corpus" — "you have the body." And now, in the age where a device we keep in our pockets can reveal a dictator's demise, it has never been more relevant. Whether it's Saddam hanging from a rope, Nicolae Ceausescu dead in his suit and tie, or Gadhafi beaten and confused and then dead and gone, the sight of the body is one of the most powerful political and emotional totems of all.
Gadhafi's former subjects attested to that in the city of Misrata this weekend. In long lines curling around corners and into the street, they waited to enter a produce locker in a run-down shopping plaza. There, upon that blood-stained mattress, they saw a man they held responsible for years of misery and ruined lives.Comment on this story
They looked down upon his shirtless remains, his toupee gone, his slight pot belly visible, his oft-facelifted visage sagging. They smiled and they ogled and they wept. They were the ones who had the power now. The man who had carefully built himself into a curious myth was rendered unto those he once ruled as something diminished and frail, hurtling toward impermanence and irrelevance.
Great and terrible in life, in death these mythologized despots and masterminds are revealed at last as the much smaller men behind the curtain — shorn of the outsized facades that frightened and mesmerized so many for so long. The stars, in the end, are just like us.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Ted Anthony writes about American culture for The Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/anthonyted