I got a good deal of exposure to Libya, and Moammar Gadhafi, in the mid to late 1980s. He was already, at the time, among the Arab world's longest surviving rulers.
Here's what he achieved to stay in power (and what he seems finally to be losing): the profound hobbling of the Libyan people's claim to a say in their own lives.
I saw this in Russia, and also Iraq: These dictators do get into the souls of their people and all but kill off the human spirit.
Trust of government having been broken, the people give up any real faith in political institutions. They have to bribe to get what they need, so they start demanding bribes to perform their own jobs. They know state television is a lie, so truth as a value seems like a fool's game.
Gadhafi, who is referred to by his flunkies and the official Libyan media as "The Leader," broke his own people as "political animals" -- and that kept him safe, protected him from organized opposition, even from honest and fair discussion.
The sorrowful thing was seeing the hoops people had to jump through to stay alive and out of jail. University students had to participate actively in seminars that took seriously the nonsensical Gadhafi writing that purported to hold deep meaning.
To this day one of those statements is etched in my memory, because it hung on banners at the airport and all over Tripoli:
IN NEED FREEDOM IS LATENT.
Meaning? Nothing, of course. But it was sad to see normal people go through the motions of struggling to decode it. There was something humiliating about the performance, and it took many forms.
I remember, for example, being squeezed in the midst of an enormous crowd of villagers who'd been bussed into a town called Homs. Gadhafi was about to emerge from a house on a hill (actually, from the still closed garage of a house on a hill) riding a bucking white stallion.
Literally under my feet (and that of the crew with me) the men were slaughtering sheep in his honor. Blood was spraying everywhere, the chants were deafening, the surge of people claustrophobic.
Then the garage door opened, and as The Leader galloped directly and recklessly into the crowd, I realized I hadn't seen anything yet. Berserk is the precise word to describe how the men around me now acted.
As Gadhafi trotted onto the town's main street, the surge followed, for two or three miles, grown men loping along in the killer heat, until the road reached desert, and they were made to stop.
Luckily for the president, there was a limo waiting in the dunes, and a man to take the horse away. Another beau geste scored for the desert.
What struck me most was the nearly pathetic adoration these crowds either felt, or felt compelled to pretend to feel. They either believed, or they were terrified. Either way, they couldn't be a threat to Gadhafi.
A few days later, government officials led us to a soccer field, where I saw that they'd set to work on breaking the next generation. Gadhafi was not there, but several uniformed men sat in the stands. So did the parents of the kids who began parading onto the field.
They ran through various maneuvers, some cute tumbling and some foot races. Then a silence fell, as a half dozen or so boys marched in a single line to stop directly opposite the ranking spectators. They boys were aged about 11 to 13, and each held in his right hand a chicken or a rabbit.