Out of the rat hole: Dictators, capture and the ‘rat’ frame – The Death of Gadaffi

Although the next year of the rat will not be until 2021, the rat metaphor is a popular cultural ‘myth’ in Roland Barthes’ sense of the word. The idea of the rat still holds the mythic connotations of describing someone who is a snitch, a scavenger, lowlife and undesirable. Of course this also holds true to describe the dwelling where someone may be found or their act of hiding. For this reason, the rat “frame” appears to be a favored rhetorical device for framing the capture of dictators as can been seen in the capture of Saddam Hussein and Mummar Gadaffi.

To be clear, Saddam Hussein or Mummar Gadaffi were not pleasant men by any stretch. They were war criminals who tortured and killed their own citizens. Arguing and outlining the extent of their crimes is not the purpose of this short post. Instead, what is interesting is the common cultural narrative used – 8 years apart – which is drawn upon to describe their capture.

On December 15, 2003 Saddam Hussein’s capture was reported by CNN using the headline, “Saddam ‘caught like a rat’ in a hole”. The reference to being caught like a rat, and therefore the source for the headline, came from US Major General Raymond Odierno when describing Hussein’s capture to the media. The rat metaphor proved popular and was published on media outlets from  Fox News, “Saddam Captured ‘Like a Rat’ in Raid” to the Scotsman, “Torches shone on Saddam’s face – he was caught like a rat in a trap“.

On October 20, 2011, Mummar Gadaffi was found hiding in a sewer reportedly begging for his life. His capture also fell into a ‘rat’ frame with Reuters using the headline, “Libya’s Gaddafi caught hiding like a ‘rat’ “.   Given the situation in which Gaddafi was found, hiding in a sewer, and that sewers are indeed where rats live, the use of a rat frame is understandable. This description becomes all the more appropriate given the characteristics Gaddafi embodied, and exceed, what the mythic rat represents.

So perhaps what is of interest is the mythic power of the rat and its use in journalism as a frame; a way of making sense of events. It works on a literal level as both men were found in locations (dark holes and sewers) where rodents would be expected to live. It also captures the characteristics of the dictators who, with different degrees and at different times, were tolerated by the West [despite still being bad men!]. The mythic power of the rat also relays the descent of  the two leaders from powerful individuals who appeared to rule with disdain and without mercy into emasculated individuals who had been  reduced to retreating to a rat den and being ceremoniously dragged from it. In the media, the two men had devolved into the antithesis of the public image they had tried to project.


The role of ceremony here is important and shows the limits of a rat metaphor. At the risk of mixing metaphors, those who were being hunted – Saddam Hussein and Mummar Gaddafi – were big game. Proof of this rests in the trophy shots; the exterminators or rat catchers who successfully captured the leaders at large. The ceremony or perhaps spectacle of media coverage is also of interest. For this I wish Susan Sontag was still with us to offer her perspective on the parading of corpses and its interpretation by Western journalists. While Western media is usually quite conservative in how it represents the dead, in this instance, it is graphic. Perhaps because the images are of the dying and dead body of a villain; a rat.

While the public was denied seeing  the dead body of Osama Bin Laden, video of Gaddafi exists almost up until the moment of his death and images are abound of his death. The public can not only witness the compressed demise of  the public figure but the process and then the face of death. The public too was able to witness the death of Saddam Hussein though this was through a leaked mobile phone video; a backstage act made public.

Gaddafi’s death, on the other hand, was public.  The shoot out, subsequent retreat to and then expunged from a tunnel marked the climax of the Western media narrative  around  Mummar Gaddafi. The rat has been caught; the rat has been exterminated. The media images which accompany the death of Gahaafi fit this narrative and while I certainly do not feel an ounce of sympathy for either Saddam or Gaddafi, I think events like this showcase the role, function and ideologies of media. Thus amidst the celebratory parading of Gaddafi’s body and the media’s coverage of this, there is an opportunity to open a discourse around ideology and ethics in media representation.


1 Comment

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One response to “Out of the rat hole: Dictators, capture and the ‘rat’ frame – The Death of Gadaffi

  1. Great post, Pat. Part and parcel, I think, of the ongoing “dumbification” of news reporting, in that every story has to be crafted into a more easily digestible narrative where there are clear and unflinching distinctions between the good guys and the bad guys; where people who were considered allies when it was politically convenient are transformed into Hollywood-esque mustache-twirling, cackling villains whose demise can be cheered and toasted by the masses in between their daily servings of sports results and Kim Kardashian’s cleavage. It isn’t evil to suggest that the world is more complex than that, just not very good ratings.

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