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a 7,000 year old text or a seven year old child?

[ed. note: this post has been update - down at the end]

There's a lot of hand-wringing over the looting of Iraqi museums.

I know that Iraq is the cradle of civilization. If I hadn't known it before, I certainly would have been well schooled in the history of the area by the time I helped my daughter finish her project on that very subject last year.

Sure, I am saddened over the loss of 7,000 years worth of history as a result of the looting.

However, I am more saddened by the looting and plundering of the lives and dignity of the people of Iraq by Saddam Hussein.

Wednesday was the day for killing and Thursday was the day relatives paid to collect the bodies of the dead. How prisoners were executed depended on an order from above a bullet to the back of the head for those deemed to deserve a degree of mercy and the rope for those destined to suffer.

On the morning of their deaths, prisoners were asked their permission to be killed: those who agreed first received a glass of water and a brief reading of verses from the Koran while those who said no went straight to the hangman's noose.

On Thursdays, the relatives of the dead came to collect the bodies of their loved ones. They could only do so if they paid for the bullets that were used in their deaths.

George Bush did not loot and plunder the museums. The people of Iraq did. And while you may cry and lash out over the loss of texts and golds and cuniform - and that's understandable - to value those things over the loss of life is foolish. And to not see why the museum was looted is to be blind to what is really going on.

The people of Iraq who have rioted and ransacked and carted away plush chairs and silk draperies from the palaces of Saddam, the people who ran into the stores and museums and took what they could get, they were reacting. They were letting go of years of repression and bitterness and anger.

If we are placing blame, let it be on Saddam. It is not the fault of the troops, who were busy fighting down the opposition. It is not the fault of Rumsfeld. It is the fault of a regime that made its people feel worthless, degraded and inhuman.

Pictures of dead Iraqis, with their necks slashed, their eyes gouged out and their genitals blackened, fill a bookshelf. Jail cells, with dried blood on the floor and rusted shackles bolted to the walls, line the corridors. And the screams of what could be imprisoned men in an underground detention center echo through air shafts and sewer pipes.

''I was beaten, refrigerated naked and put underground for one year because I was a Shiite and Saddam is a Sunni,'' said Ali Kaddam Kardom, 37.

I found this comment on the weblog post linked above:

[the loss of museum artifacts] is worse than killing people, and you are right to grieve more.

When you kill a person, you snuff out the whole universe that is in their head, who they are, what they know, and all the potential of what they could be and do. But they will, eventually, die anyway: everyone dies. You've killed them and made that happen sooner. It's a terrible thing, but it's within the way things happen.

I'm sorry, but I cannot subscribe to that way of thinking. I do not place the value of things over people.

There are people grieving over the loss of the museum pieces. Crying, unable to work or concentrate.

I want to know if they cried for the toddlers in Saddam's prisons.

I want to know if they cried for the women who were raped as punishment or the men who were dipped in acid.

Did they cry for the children who starved to death while Saddam spent his food for oil money on a golden bidet and mirrored ceilings in his bedroom?

A physical record of the history of civilization has been lost due to the looting. Yes, a very sad, depressing thought.

I would not trade one of those urns or parchments for the life of a human being. I would not trade a single book or piece of art for the liberation of millions of suffering people. I would not trade any single item that is gone from that museum for the children that were set free from their prison.

I pity you if you would.

UPDATE: For more on this, see Dr. Weevil. Read all the comments. It is my contention, as it is that of many others, that the looting of the museum was an inside job (it has been reported that the vaults were opened up) and thus could not have been stopped from the outside. I also believe that the goods stolen were not taken out and stomped on or crushed or destroyed in anger; they were taken by people who knew the worth of these items and intend to sell them on the black market. They will turn up again. Maybe not soon, but they will.

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Comments

well, i might make an exception for saddam or osama or james carville or terry macaulliffe, but in principle, i agree completely.

Comeon Michele, don't pity people who are like that - they don't even deserve your pity.

Please also note that Saddam and his cronies have been selling off treasures from the museums--mostly to Russian collectors--for over twenty years, as reported in Archaeology, Minerva, and Forbes.

Why does it have to be an either-or?

The looting is indeed a tragedy, as is a report that the National Library was on fire. And the pathetic part is that those treasures will end up chiefly in the hands of wealthy European and North American private collectors.

If they do, then at least there will be a chance that they will be recovered. People are acting as if the looters plan to take the cuneiform tablets and ancient pottery and smash them to powder. Artifacts can be recovered after being stolen. Human lives can't be recovered after being snuffed out.

Jane pointed it out, you always know either - or. It is worth a question why the looting mass was able to hit the museum while the oil ministry was well guarded by the US troops. I could imagine more possible tragets for looters who could be worth guarding than a effing oil-ministry. But yes, I remember, the war had nothing to do with oil, it's just the poor children and women and men and.... well.. whoever was poor and needed to be liberated then. It is great that all these people can be free now and a world without Saddam will be a better one, but enough is enough.

I agree that it is not an either-or. Just because a person cries over one tragedy does not mean that they don't care about others. It's not even necessarily a sign of what they care about the most.

Life is complicated. Everything is connected. Being the Cradle of Civilization, Iraq has the potential to attract large numbers of wealthy, art-loving tourists. Right now stolen art doesn't look like a high priority but later on it could put food on more than one person's table.

"I would not trade a single book or piece of art for the liberation of millions of suffering people. I would not trade any single item that is gone from that museum for the children that were set free from their prison."

Did you mean to say: "I wouldn't trade a single human life for every book and piece of art in there. I would not trade one freed child for every item gone from the museum."? The way you put it sounds less effective but I think that's what you meant.

Lilli, did you ever think that we might want to preserve the oil ministry to allow for the Iraqis themselves to resume production and finance their country? or that we might be able to expose French and Russian perfidy with the records there? or that we thought people would respect their own museum?

Joel, that's exactly what I meant. Thank you.

Bad syntax = one slap on the head.

Thanks for this, Michele. My jaw hit the floor when I read of people sobbing over museum artifacts instead of dead people. No wonder they didn't want Saddam toppled: he was protecting what really matters.

Maybe, and despite being a bitch I am nothing if not a soft-hearted bitch, maybe the people who took those things took them for safe-keeping until the insanity is over.

Yeah, I know, naive, eh?

It is the old debate about root causes. Here the root cause, Saddam, seems to be pretty clear.

I'll note that it isn't impossible that some things may have been "moved for safekeeping" -- to protect them both from domestic looters and possibly also out of concern that they'd be taken to a US museum as trophies.

As with most stories, I want to wait and see..... but yeah, I was reading the comments at Hayden's site, and was amazed by the people who rated stuff over life and liberty...

Don't recall where I came across this, but there was also the claim that many of Iraq's treasures had already been looted---by the Husseins (and let's be honest, is that really so inconceivable?).

In which case, many of the items being destroyed may or may not actually be priceless relics, as opposed to knock-offs.

The point, Lilli, is that, at this point, we know that men, women, and children were being killed, regardless of the status of the items in the museum. Given a choice between a known bad (tortured/killed Iraqis) and a potential bad (looted museum), which one would you choose?

As a few people have already said, I don't see the either-or here. The Pentagon had been briefed by anthropologists and historians that this might happen, and it wouldn't have taken much to station a few guards in front of the museum as they did the, um, Oil Ministry.

The fact that Saddam ruthlessly butchered his own people, while abhorrent to say the least, is carrying a lot of argumentative weight these days on questions that it has little or nothing to do with. I believe this is such a case - The fall of Saddam's terror regime clearly precipitated some joyous acts of looting, but this was a partially systematic plundering of a world-important historical archive that could have been prevented by six guards and a tank. Saddam's torture chambers don't really bear on the question.

Of course I agree that human lives are worth a lot more than the antiquities that were lost in the looting. At the moment, Iraqi looting, vandalism and destruction of property is not only destroying private and public property, it is also serving to destroy the credibility of the US armed forces and the Bush administration's plans for the future of Iraq. In addition, the lawlessness taking place, although due to Iraqis themselves, is indirectly causing ill-will towards the American presence in the country. It is also providing additional negative images of the US effort to the foreign press. Innocent Iraqis have survived the war to date, only to see their possessions or businesses looted or destroyed by their fellow Iraqis.

Although the war effort is not over and the priority of the coalition armed forces is to secure the country and dismantle the last remnants of the Hussein regime, the military has to take measures to ensure that the chaos and lawlessness that currently exists does not continue. Perhaps the military planners can allocate a certain number of troops be brought in specifically to police the country. Ultimately this will only lead to safer conditions not only for the Iraqis but also for our troops in the country. It should also serve to make reconstruction much easier later and allow Iraqis to rebuild their country faster.

The plundering of the National Museum of Iraq should not have been allowed to happen. The administration planners and military should have had the foresight to protect this World Treasure. The artifacts that were lost, most likely permantly, represent a loss of culture and history not only of the Iraqi people but to the whole world. This would be akin to destroying all the art and exhibits in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Smithsonian. I am praying that the Bush administration puts measures in place to prevent additional looting and restore order to that country. In addition, I hope laws are tightened regarding the buying of importing of stolen artifacts as some of these treasures will undoubtedly find their way to the international art market.

I'm reminded of Treacher's mock protest sign about wanting everything to be perfect overnight....

Would it have been better if no looting of the museum had happened? Yes. Was it really prevantable? Maybe. Should it have been given priority over areas they guarded first? Dunno. I don't have the information they had.

It may be that they assigned security details first and foremost to places where they expected organized deliverate destruction of records. It may be that they had meant to send troops there, but those troops were called away to deal with something urgent, like live sniper fire. It may be that they were worried about the politics of taking it over, and worried about accusations they were looting the museum. It may be that the museum's location made stationing a detail there overly risky. There's all kinds of reasons why this might have happened.

The looting needs to be stopped; artifacts need to be sought out. Perhaps all the people who are so heartbroken they can't think will donate money for rewards to pay those who "find" lost artifacts and turn them in, no questions asked, so they can be restored to the museum.

I have no problem with people seeing this as a sad loss, although as yet we have no firm data on the actual damage, and we probably won't for a couple of years (as we see how many key artifacts reappear); I do have problem with some of the relative weight given to this, as if preventing damage to the arifacts would justidy continuing Saddam's regime.

I would like to see this investigated, not to find someone to blame, but to determine why it happened and how looting might be better controlled in future conflicts.

i have sometimes been accused of loving my books more than people. But i am totally with you on this one Michele. And i have read the Epic of Gilgamesh (in translation). How many of these people crying about the museum even know what that is!

Another thing, Iraq's history may go back millenia, but its insane to compare the Iraqi Museum to the Met, which makes any short list of the world's greatest.

Craig, well said! Monday morning quarterbacks who've never served a day are quick to point out what "should have been done" or "could have been done" or "it would only have taken six guys and a tank" or some other bullshit which fails completely to recognize the turmoil and chaos which accompanies even the most successful operation.