April 16, 2003

When chaos erupted in Iraq Secretary Rumsfeld scolded the press and told them not to report the havoc but rather to celebrate freedom. Water and power to the hospitals are gone. Money is floating on the wind like desert sand. Neighbors are shooting neighbors and stores have been emptied in Basra, in Baghdad, Mosul and Tikrit. The National Museum is gutted. The National Library burned to the ground. Former Secretary of State James Baker called it "a bit of looting here and there."

One hundred seventy thousand artifacts were trashed or taken from the national museum while the deputy director stood aside and wept. One hundred seventy thousand items worth billions of dollars, tracing the evolution of civilization to the first tribes in the ancient desert. American technology cannot replace any of it. Americans cannot re-write clay tablets from the time of Abraham. James Baker was wrong. This was not just a little bit of looting.

"This liberation is worse than our worst days under Saddam Hussein," said an Iraqi man watching carts roll away from stores, stealing the life goods of small shop keepers, draining away the life work and savings of families. Still, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld says this is freedom. The Secretary is reportedly eager to install to power in Iraq a man by the name of Chalabi once convicted of embezzlement in Jordan. Chalabi is an outsider but Iraqis must accept him because Rumsfeld is for freedom and Rumsfeld is an honorable man.

Indy news service reported that the American flag that was famously draped over the head of Saddam Hussein’s statue was the very same flag that had been flying on the Pentagon on 9/11. That flag was not the spontaneous idea of some exuberant marine. The crowd that beat their shoes upon the fallen statue included at least one man, clearly identifiable, whom the Pentagon had flown into Nasariya together with Chalabi. He was one of our guys; one that we brought for the show. The Indy pictures, taken from high above, showed also that the "spontaneous demonstration" included less than 100 people all of whom were completely surrounded, and protected, by marines. There were no crowds elsewhere beyond in the broad expanse of empty streets. The whole event was staged within 100 yards of the hotel in which lived the international press corps. It was put on for their easy convenience.

The looting spread and the press went to places where the setting was not staged by the Pentagon and Secretary Rumsfeld yowled in protest. How can you show pictures of chaos in the midst of liberation, he scolded. Those suffering women and children, those mourning their dead fathers or brothers have been liberated. So has the child who had lost her leg in the U.S. bombing. Next day, after Rumsfeld scolded them, the US press meekly said that the child’s leg was "allegedly" lost in the bombing. Maybe the child lost her leg some other way. Maybe her mother was just saying that.

One time Congress sought impeachment of Richard Nixon for not telling the truth about Watergate, and another time against Bill Clinton for half truths about his sex life. At least their follies did not affect the future of the globe. If what Nixon and Clinton did was lawless, then Mr. Bush’s preemptive strike against an enemy who had not attacked us, an invasion prohibited by the UN Charter, the Nuremberg Principles and the Geneva Conventions, was surely far more lawless and far more tragic in its historic consequence. Long after the toppling of Saddam’s statue has ceased to be remembered it will be forever recorded that in the occupation of Baghdad Mr. Bush’s armies were instructed to stand by and let museums and libraries burn.

Not least of the treasures lost was the code of Hammurabi, 1728 BC, the oldest law code known to man. For 3,800 years school children have studied that law. It is perhaps no accident that Mr. Bush’s army guarded the oil ministry but let the law code be stolen away. This so-called liberation will one day be compared to those who fired the ancient library of Alexandria or to those who bombed the Parthenon in Athens. This destruction is irreversible. It cannot be undone by an act of Congress. It cannot be undone by electing a Democrat in 2004. In a just world future generations would record that it was a certain American president and his war secretary who foresaw this, discussed it, and let it happen. But in a world satisfied with headlines it will only be recorded that unknown and numberless Americans came to Baghdad not caring for the law at all, not even for the Code of Hammurabi, 3,800 years old. We will all be connected to the defining moment of Mr. Bush’s war. Mr. Rumsfeld planned that the world would remember the fallen statue. We will not. We will remember instead that in a moment of extreme self congratulation, he and his president stood by to watch the records of civilization destroyed.