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The thieves of Baghdad

By Jackson Murphy
web posted April 21, 2003

One hot button issue to emerge from the toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq has been the looting and destruction of three Iraqi cultural institutions. So far the blame has been placed largely on the American occupation force for not securing places such as the Iraqi National Museum-a place described as one of the 10 most important museums in the world.

But isn't this a little much? This looting wasn't done, after all, by the United States Marines was it? According to Meghan O'Rourke writing in Slate.com, who clearly was mustering up some good old-fashioned Michael Moore outrage, "it seems like the administration just didn't care enough to stop it-an indifference that's part and parcel with its general attitude toward anything other than its military objectives."

Yes its true, those Americans spared these houses of cultural treasures during the war, they safeguarded the more immediately important oil fields which will be the basis of Iraq's economy for years to come, and they liberated the nation from a tyrannical regime. But they just didn't care about the art.

The real "Thief of Baghdad," has been, and continues to be Saddam Hussein. Again the perspective of those who were against this war in the first place is misguided and sad. The U.S. was the aggressive imperialist they say, but Saddam was the innocent. Same goes for the looting. We're the bad guys here? If it weren't for the invasion of sovereign Iraq those blessed artifacts would still be safe. Safe in the hands of a dictator who was shamelessly hording the treasure while destroying his people.

But O'Rourke doesn't stop there. "Although Colin Powell has promised that the United States would help rebuild the city's National Museum, no U.S. official has yet apologized-and there've been few or no words from Bush on the issue."

Apologize? I don't know about you, but this seems like the most insane case of blaming the victim I've ever seen. Then again, those opposing the war have gone through various stages of outrage leaving them with this latest talking point as justification for being against the Bush administration's foreign policy.

Here is Adam Goodheart from The New York Times: "Above all, scholars reacted as mourners struggling with an overwhelming loss. In Boston, Dr. [John Malcolm] Russell fought back tears as he described a sculpture from the museum he had seen in the 1980's: a small carving of a bird, one of the earliest stone sculptures in existence, from around 8,000 B.C."

"The archaeologists had found it literally in the hand of its ancient owner, who had been crushed to death when the roof of his burning house fell on him, evidently as he tried to save this piece," Russell told Goodheart. "In light of what's happened in the past week, that's very hard to think about right now."

It seems outrageous that people could have this sort of indignation over something that has probably been stolen a dozen times before this month. Other commentators wonder what good it does to call this "looting" since, as Steven E. Landsburg asks, "what word you'd use for the depredations of the old regime"?

National Review Online's John Derbyshire has a quite different take. "Saddam Hussein owned this treasure trove for a while. He was hardly a fit person, though, and the pieces have now been scattered to new owners. I suppose that by the vagaries of fate, some will be lost or destroyed, but I am sure most will surface again in the slow churning of time. Time, after all, is what 5,000-year-old objects have plenty of."

In fact Derbyshire makes the sound case for this looting as an eventual positive development. That sooner or later the antiquities will find their ways into western museums in London or the United States where they will be much more secure.

At any rate, artwork that was stolen is already beginning to turn up. Ha'aretz is reporting that Jordanian officials have seized 42 works they believe were stolen from Iraq. And will it surprise anyone given the last few months that the BBC is reporting that artifacts are possibly already showing up in Paris? I thought not.

Don't get me wrong, these historical treasures should found and kept safe, but I find it really disturbing that after decades of oppression we are going to make this a huge deal. After all we have people who riot and loot when their sports teams lose-that's just plain pathetic at least the Iraqis have real reason to be looting. The bottom line is that Iraq is more free now, but possibly a little less culturally rich. Perhaps the Iraqis have already learned that freedom is worth way more than golden harps and vases.

Jackson Murphy is a commentator from Vancouver, Canada. He is the editor of "Dispatches" a website that serves up political commentary 24-7. You can contact him at jacksonmurphy@telus.net.

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