Jewish World Review April 21, 2003 / 19 Nisan, 5763

Jim Hoagland

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Victims of civic passivity | The Pentagon is taking fire for failing to protect Baghdad's incomparable National Museum and its archaeological treasures from rampaging mobs. There is some justice in the accusation: The security lapses at the museum and at Iraq's hospitals were inexcusable.

But the rush to condemn Americans for looting and destruction committed by Iraqis obscures fundamental questions about social responsibility and accountability in Iraq and throughout the Arab world. The debate about responsibility for the museum's losses goes to the heart of the need for urgent moral and psychological change in the greater Middle East.

An important question is going unasked in the rush to condemn: If looting was so predictable, what did the Iraqis -- and particularly the staff of the museum -- do to protect the museum's valuable antiquities?

Filmed and written accounts coming from Baghdad suggest that the answer is not much. That in turn raises an intriguingly sinister possibility. Can one of history's greatest art thefts have been an inside heist by top officials in the organized kleptocracy known as the Saddam Hussein government?

I spent hours in this museum every time I went to Baathist Baghdad. It was an oasis of culture and sanity in that grim police state. It was a lovingly cared for monument to the ancient times when Mesopotamia was the center of civilization, not of totalitarian cruelty.

U.S. war planners kept their bombs out of the museum's vicinity this year, as they did in 1991. But it was always vulnerable to the fates of war. That should have been as clear to the museum's curators as to American generals, though both seemed to have been caught by surprise at the sudden Baathist collapse.

In Baghdad there was no Wilhelm Unverzacht, the Berlin curator who in World War II secreted away in the German capital's most secure bomb shelter the great Schliemann treasury of Troy's antiquities. The entire collection was recovered unscathed by the Soviet military when Berlin fell. But Unverzacht's good deed did not go completely unpunished: The golden treasures were sent secretly to Moscow, where they remain despite Germany's demands for their return.

Contrast this to the scene shown on French television last week when a weeping curator returns to the ransacked Baghdad museum after being absent during the war and angrily asks a man whose clothes and demeanor suggest he is the janitor: "Did you put away the Sumerian bowl?" He says no, as if no one had ever asked him to take any precautionary measures.

This was not just random looting. Glass cases were cut into with highly sophisticated tools. Artifacts too large to be carried away were gratuitously destroyed. There seemed in fact to have been a systematic attempt to reduce the museum to a shambles -- as if to hide traces of what had happened there. It is only a theory at this point, but there is no reason to discard the idea that in their flight Saddam Hussein's henchmen got to the abandoned museum long before the mobs did.

In any event, it is self-defeating for Iraqis (and others) to try to place all responsibility for this cultural disaster on the shoulders of the U.S. military. That perpetuates the myth that outsiders are always responsible for the problems and failures of the Arab world. Arab governments have developed the political reflex of shifting blame to others into a high art, and their citizens buy into that view with amazing ease.

No one likes to accept blame. But the degree to which outside forces are held responsible for the long and continuing economic, cultural and social decline of most Arab countries is remarkable by any current standard. The Arab media, politicians and intellectuals portray their people collectively as victims the whole livelong day.

That can only add to the widespread civic passivity that spreads under conditions of totalitarian rule and deep poverty. It has been encouraging to see liberated Iraqis in Baghdad begin to break out of ingrained fatalism by organizing themselves to resist looters and clean up their neighborhoods. Societies survive from the bottom up.

Iraqis now have a chance to look squarely at the factors in their society that made them prey to a criminal regime -- and to change them. They can no longer blame everything on Saddam Hussein, Israel, the United States or all of the above. In that way, at least, a free Iraq can serve as a model for all Arabs.

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04/14/03: Three miscreants
04/11/03: Saddam's final mistake

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