What I Wrote on April 14, 2003
UPDATED: It's interesting, in contrast, to read what our buddy Bruce Chapman of the Discovery Institute wrote on March 14, 2004 regarding Iraq.
I was not working for the museum at the time, but for a private consulting firm, one of the clients for city government, for which I had previously worked. It is strange to look at this piece now, over four years since I wrote it.
What made me think of and post this is, I blatted my brains out off-topic at someone else's blog about Iraq and unfortunately, since my blood was up, got into all the harassment that I went through in 1999 (long story) culminating in my call to the FBI. Another commenter called me a liar, essentially. Well, I did my duty as a citizen and there's a record of my call out there somewhere at the FBI. I put two-and-two together about a past bombing and notified the FBI in early 2001. [UPDATED: The Ritz Theatre today is a thriving dance theatre.] No connection, as it turns out, to Moussaui or the KKK (there was a note with "KKK" left at the scene) or anything like that - and no resolution to the case of the bombing of a then-Asian cinema - but the people behind the harassment of me and other city employees and officials have left the neighborhood, and at least one of them has been charged with another crime (extorting sex from his female renters).
UPDATE: The Justice Department announced a settlement in this case. More background on the case. I wish to stress that I am not one of these plaintiffs. I am a homeowner who was harassed by the group that this man supported. To this day I do not know if they were involved in the bombing but I have my suspicions. Also, it was ironic that about the time of my phone call to the FBI the KKK rallied at the State Capitol, and I invited Senator Paul Wellstone speak at a counter-event sponsored by the YWCA the night before. (I spoke to Tom Lapic, who also died in the crash that killed Wellstone.)
Painful memories, really, painful and scary memories of this time. But I stood up. I did something. I accomplished something, even if it was little in the ultimate scheme of things. This is what I was doing in the months before September 11 turned my workplace, located right next to the Federal Reserve Bank. into an obstacle course of chain-link fences and men with submachine guns. I must say my family has been much more fortunate than the families of other military personnel.
Iraq was the wrong war. Afghanistan was a country that we neglected all through the 1990s, the country that I had fervently wished the United States to engage militarily during the civil war, and we are losing the crucial war there now. And we will pay for both mistakes.
REMEMBER THIS DAY IN HISTORY, FOR FUTURE GENERATIONS WILL
No, I am not talking about the supposed end of the reign of Saddam Hussein. Though I have no love for Saddam, I am not cheering the interior decorating that we have accomplished in Iraq.
This is why: Since 1982 I have opposed and protested America’s support for Saddam Hussein. I stood up in class at North High and denounced our President—then Ronald Reagan—for giving money and weapons to a man who invaded Iran, stifled dissent, and slaughtered his own people. When I said that if we shipped chemicals to Iraq Saddam would gas the Kurds, my classmates thought I meant cheese curds. They taunted me for caring about people so far away. (Many of these kids subsequently joined the military, and some may even be in Iraq at this moment.)
In 1988, after using chemical warfare against Iran, Saddam did gas the Kurds. I wrote yet another letter to President Reagan urging him to finally punish this brutal dictator. In the Senate, Jesse Helms and Al Gore sponsored a bill to strip Saddam of his favored status. It passed the Senate in one day, and I was heartened. But the Reagan Administration worked with Republicans and conservative Democrats to defeat the bill, and America continued to give Saddam $700 million a year. It wasn’t until 1991, after Saddam invaded Kuwait, that America went to war with Saddam Hussein.
I will remember this day in history because it is the day—after the tragedy of Iraq’s Museum of Antiquities being looted—that the Iraqi National Library, one of the greatest libraries in the world, burned to the ground.
I am a writer who works for historic preservationists. You may not know that I have been studying Arabic and Islamic cultures on my own since I was fourteen. It’s more than just taking belly dancing lessons! It means learning an elaborate system of honor and tradition. It means learning the many contributions that Arabia gave to Medieval Europe, enabling the Renaissance. It means understanding that Mesopotamia was the cradle of civilization and the birthplace of the West.
Secretary of State Colin Powell certainly knows that one can’t just go to Wal-Mart to replace Assyrian or Babylonian artefacts. But his promise to “repair” the damage done, while well meant, is naïve. Any preservationist knows how difficult, time-consuming, and costly it is just to maintain ancient works due to normal wear and tear, let alone repair them due to vandalism. To repair smashed artefacts will be impossible. Some things simply cannot be restored.
It is worse with the Iraqi National Library. That is completely gone. Archives from the Ottoman Empire; written correspondence of the 16th Century Royal Court; military diaries, photographs, microfiche of Arab newspapers dating back to the 1900s—they are gone forever. Hand-written notes from King Hussein of Mecca were rescued by Robert Fisk, a British reporter currently in Baghdad. Scraps were all that he could preserve—tantalizing snippets relating to a British soldier whom I consider to be a kindred spirit, T. E. Lawrence, otherwise known as Lawrence of Arabia.
Think of trying to “recover and repair” the treasures of a sacked Vatican. Think of Oxford or the Library of Congress burning to the ground. Think of losing the entire collection of Michelangelo’s or da Vinci’s works. Some things are irreplaceable.
One could say that the looting and the destruction are just the unfortunate side effects of war, but the vastly more difficult task of securing oil fields has been accomplished by the Coalition with a minimum of destruction. Likewise, while hospitals are overrun by armed gangs, Baghdad’s Oil Ministry is untouched because it has U.S. soldiers guarding it. In addition, observers in Baghdad report that accelerant was used on the library, and that the stealing of larger pieces from the museum bespeaks of a professional job. That said, it should be remembered that historians and archaeologists repeatedly pleaded with the Pentagon to follow international procedures for safeguarding these institutions.
As for me, I certainly can’t blame ordinary Iraqis for raiding palaces and government buildings. But I cannot believe that they would take up arms in order to raid hospital maternity wards, or the museum, or the library. The artefacts in the museum were stolen not from their display cases but from the locked vaults in which they were placed to protect them from the bombing—which, ironically, they survived.* The gangs involved in the library burning were armed and particularly violent, destroying copies of the world’s oldest Quar’ans as well as inventories and records.
I personally suspect—and this is my own theory—that Saddam Hussein himself could be behind the destruction, that he exhorted his men to destroy the hospitals and cultural sites. Saddam warned of “an inferno,” after all—and he knew that this administration, in its zeal, would not listen.
I know all the stated reasons for this war, and I do not accept them—not after I lobbied for so long for the United States to quit supporting the same brutal dictator we now claim to have toppled. Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003 was on its last legs, no threat to the U.S., and the relative ease of the Coalition’s rout is evidence of that. That the Iraqi people are grateful to be pawns in our hypocrisy sours any pleasure I have at seeing the statues of Saddam pulled down amongst cheering crowds. It was the looters who cheered—now, although one must tune in the BBC to learn this, thousands are protesting the occupying soldiers for not protecting their cultural heritage. No weapons of mass destruction have been found, and if they are so mobile as to have easily been spirited into Syria, they can be taken anywhere, rendering a futile a geographical-based war. None of the September 11th terrorists were from Iraq. (Indeed, most of them were from Saudi Arabia, a similarly brutal regime whose ruling family, along with the family of Osama Bin Laden, enjoys close ties to George W. Bush.)
After the completion of my first novel I was developing several new writing projects: one on the life of Edgar Allen Poe, and one on the destruction of the Library at Alexandria. The accidental burning of that library by the Romans during a war between Julius Caesar and his rival Pompey robbed the world of many works by Aristotle, Socrates, Aristarchus, and countless other great thinkers from Greece, Rome, and the Orient. It was a disaster from which the world has never recovered, despite the efforts of Jewish and Islamic scholars who preserved and translated the few scrolls that survived two subsequent destructions. So is the loss of the Iraqi National Library a disaster from which the world won’t—can’t—recover.
In the words of Donny George**, the Director of Antiquities at the museum and an Assyrian Christian, “We waited there for about four hours until we met a colonel. And that day, he promised that he would send armored cars to protect what’s left of the museum. That was three days ago. But until now, nobody came…. It’s too late, it’s too late, it’s no use.”
You may disagree with my opinions about the U.S.-lead war against Iraq. You may not consider this destruction much of a loss compared to the U.S. having (hopefully) deposed a vicious and elusive dictator. One could make the argument that torture and death is worse than the loss of art and knowledge. But one could also argue that countless writers, historians, journalists, and scholars have endured torture and death to defend the survival of art and knowledge, of human thought and human endeavor, because it is the writers, historians, journalists, and scholars who believe that life is much more than mere survival.
But whatever you believe, this is my prediction for the future: As few people now remember the battle between Caesar and Pompey whereas many people remember the destruction of the Library of Alexandria, few in the future will remember the demise of Saddam Hussein whereas many will remember the world’s great loss of this unique and vital repository. History transcends battles and leaders and governments, even religions and ideologies and accepted truths. We have witnessed an immense violation of humanity’s soul, comparable to the sacking of Rome or the loss of the Alexandrian Library. Remember this day in history, for future generations even unto millennia are unlikely to forget or forgive it.
*Some artefacts were removed by museum personnel and subsequently returned. Though the destruction was not as bad as initially reported, it is still very serious, and the search for antiquities looted from Iraq goes on.
**My hero Donny George left his post in 2006 due to threats to himself and his family. He fled Iraq altogether. The fate of the museum remains precarious.