April 27, 2003

NOW REPLACING MARTHA BURK--THE LOOTING MEME

And Now: 'Operation Iraqi Looting': It's hard to know the extent of the looting of Iraq's art and antiquities, but it's easy to see how little America's leaders cared. (Frank Rich, 4/27/03, NY Times)
There is much we don't know about what happened this month at the Baghdad museum, at its National Library and archives, at the Mosul museum and the rest of that country's gutted cultural institutions. Is it merely the greatest cultural disaster of the last 500 years, as Paul Zimansky, a Boston University archaeologist, put it? Or should we listen to Eleanor Robson, of All Souls College, Oxford, who said, "You'd have to go back centuries, to the Mongol invasion of Baghdad in 1258, to find looting on this scale"? Nor do we know who did it. Was this a final act of national rape by Saddam loyalists? Was it what Philippe de Montebello, of the Metropolitan Museum, calls the "pure Hollywood" scenario--a clever scheme commissioned in advance by shadowy international art thieves? Was it simple opportunism by an unhinged mob? Or some combination thereof?

Whatever the answers to those questions, none of them can mitigate the pieces of the damning jigsaw puzzle that have emerged with absolute certainty. The Pentagon was repeatedly warned of the possibility of this catastrophe in advance of the war, and some of its officials were on the case. But at the highest levels at the White House, the Pentagon and central command--where the real clout is--no one cared. Just how little they cared was given away by our leaders' own self-incriminating statements after disaster struck. Rather than immediately admit to error or concede the gravity of what had happened on their watch, they all tried to trivialize the significance of the looting. Once that gambit failed, they tried to shirk any responsibility for it.

"What you are seeing is a reaction to oppression," said Ari Fleischer on April 11, arguing that looting, however deplorable, is a way station to "liberty and freedom." If only the Johnson administration had thought of this moral syllogism, it could have rationalized the urban riots that swept America after the assassination of Martin Luther King. "Stuff happens!" said Donald Rumsfeld, who likened the looting to the aftermath of soccer games and joked to the press that the scale of the crime was a trompe l'oeil effect foisted by a TV loop showing "over and over and over . . . the same picture of some person walking out of some building with a vase." As Jane Waldbaum, president of the Archaeological Institute of America, summed up the defense secretary's response to the tragedy, he "basically shrugged and said, `Boys will be boys.' "

Yes, Mr. Rich, the disappearance of a few museum pieces while liberating a nation is a far greater cultural disaster than was the systematic extermination of shtetl Jewry... Posted by Orrin Judd at April 27, 2003 6:33 AM
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