"What's going on, what's happening," a wounded, dazed Muammar Gaddafi reportedly asked just before he was murdered in Sirte, Libya.
The "Brother Leader" had once asked me something similar. A year after the US sought to assassinate him by dropping a 2,000lb bomb on his bedroom in Tripoli's Baba al-Azizya barracks, Gaddafi took me by the hand, guided me out of his trademark Bedouin tent and walked me around the ruins of his private quarters. He showed me the bed on which his two-year-old adopted daughter had been killed by the US laser-guided bomb.
With a plaintive look, he asked me, "Why, Mr. Eric, why are the western powers trying to kill me?" I was stunned. Gaddafi appeared to be sincere. Could he not understand why he had become a hate figure and target number one. A leader Ronald Reagan called, "the mad dog of the Middle East."
The answer, I told him, was punishment: first, for shaming his brother Arab leaders into raising the price of oil to a fair trade value. Second, his naïve, unquestioning support for all sorts of violent "anti-colonial" movements: among them, the IRA, Basque ETA, killer Abu Nidal, Philippine Muslim rebels, Nelson Mandela's ANC. Any group that called itself "anti-colonial" or "liberationist" and got to Tripoli came away with bags of dollars and Gaddafi's support.
Yet Libya's leader kept asking me the same question when we returned to his tent. We talked far into the night about subjects from Palestine to the Italian tailors he loved. Right to his ugly death, I believe he never really understood why so many were trying to kill him.
And this was still the younger Gaddafi whose idol and father figure was Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser with whom he shared the dream of uniting all the Arabs and throwing off western neo-colonial rule.
Like Nasser, Gaddafi was bitterly disappointed by his fellow squabbling Arab rulers who had no interest in Arab unity or liberating Palestine. Gaddafi's dismay turned to rage against the Arab leaders; they, in turn, saw him as embarrassment, a lunatic, and menace.
Gaddafi gave up his visions of Arab unity, turned his back on the Arab world, and sought to make himself the dominant power in Africa. African leaders were no more willing to join a united black Africa under Gaddafi than were the Arabs.
As Gadaffi's youthful dreams turned to ashes, he became increasingly eccentric and flamboyant. His "Arab socialism" scheme nearly wrecked Libya's economy in spite of billions from oil exports. Every week seemed to bring a new, cockeyed social or economic experiment, and ever more zany behavior by the "Brother Leader."
Gaddafi told me that night in Tripoli that if he were overthrown, the western powers would quickly grab Libya's oil. His words were prophetic. The uprising that began earlier this year was organized, armed and supported by French and British intelligence. NATO warplanes and helicopters, and special forces, did the serious fighting and broke Gadaffi's forces. All the gun waving rebels were window dressing to cover a western military intervention that was supposedly for "humanitarian" purposes.
Last week, a French Mirage fighter reportedly destroyed the convoy in which Gaddafi fleeing besieged Sirte. He was seriously wounded, and then captured and lynched by an angry mob.
Competing groups of western-backed technocrats and former regime members will now vie for power with militant Islamists and hard men from Benghazi. The British, French, and Italians, all former colonial masters of North Africa's coast, will likely offer troops for "training." Businessmen and carpetbaggers from Europe, the US and Canada are already pouring into Libya, a new sandy version of Alaska's Klondike gold rush.
What will happen to Gaddafi's reserves of tens of billions of dollars remains to be seen. Expect a flood of fraudulent emails from Nigeria, "I am Col. Gaddafi's former finance minister and need you help to move $15 million out of Libya."
Other mysteries remain. Where is Abdullah Senoussi, Gaddafi's brother-in-law and intelligence chief? I dined with him in Tripoli. He holds the answers to the mysteries of the 1980's sabotage of a French UTA and Pan Am airliners. Was Libya really behind these crimes, or was it framed?
The French and Americans will want access to Libyan intelligence files and to Mr. Senoussi, who has been already convicted in absentia in France of the UTA bombing.
If Gaddafi was indeed behind the aircraft bombings, as most of the world believes, then he deserves not one bit of sympathy from us. If not, then we should at least acknowledge him for building modern Libya.
When I first came to Libya in the early 1970's, it was little more than a fuel and rest stop on the road between Alexandria and Tunis. Only united in 1951, Libya barely existed at the time. Its doddering king, Idris, was a British puppet. The US had its largest overseas air base in Libya.
Gaddafi, for all his crazy antics, daffy outfits, spasmodic cruelty and nutty "Green Revolution," managed to unite Libya, providing it with housing, hospitals, roads, a thriving oil industry and the trappings of modern civilization. But he also wasted billions on his madcap Great Manmade River that brought ancient artesian water from the Sahara to the coast.
Unfortunately for Libyans, if Gaddafi had employed good economic sense instead of his crackpot "Arab socialism," Libya today would probably be a well-run powerhouse like Qatar and the UAE.
Instead, Gaddafi squandered untold billions promoting anti-colonial revolutions, and trying to make himself the chief of black Africa. But his money did not buy friends.
Or at least not for very long. During the 1980's, the US, Britain, France and Egypt tried repeatedly to assassinate Gaddafi.
But from 2003 until last year, Gaddafi was rehabilitated; he and his high-grade oil were brought into the western fold. President George W. Bush hailed Gaddafi as, "our important ally in the war against terror." Gaddafi toured Europe, where he held hands with France's Nicholas Sarkozy and Italy's Silvio Berlusconi, exchanging vows of friendship and cooperation. Lured by oil, Britain's Tony Blair came to Tripoli to grovel before Gaddafi.
When rebellion erupted in Benghazi earlier this year - very likely sparked by the French and British intelligence services - Gaddafi quickly lost his new friends and was again relegated to pariah. Libya's oil was too great a prize to stand on treaties or promises.
Gaddafi failed to see what was happening. Going from humble Bedouin herdsman to absolute ruler was too much, too fast. Gaddafi was not crazy, but for sure he was the oddest person I have met. But he was also sly as a fox and truly charismatic. In a world of Arab dictators in poorly tailored suits, Gaddafi was a peacock - albeit a dangerous one.
After all these years, I still can't figure out whether Gaddafi was really hearing voices that guided him, or just having adolescent fun scandalizing and frightening the world.
copyright Eric S. Margolis 2011