Columnists > Voices

Warning signals

They led to the looting of Baghdad and they may hold back Iraq

Issue: "Staying underground," May 3, 2003


It would have been much nicer, of course, if the pillaging and ransacking that followed so glorious a military victory had never happened. It wasn't the picturesque denouement we all wanted. It's largely subsided now, and even at its peak it may have been overreported. But when whole museums are emptied and most of the furniture and equipment disappear even from a busy hospital, no one can deny that it's a legitimate story.

There are several reasons why we actually should have expected such raucous, criminal behavior. And those same reasons should prompt us now to get ready for other colossally serious bumps in the road ahead.

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Here were the warning signals:

Celebratory looting is common after most victories. The more lopsided the victory, the more excessive the party. Ask any military historian for the details. Or ask the athletic director at any major American university. It's true as well on a much smaller scale. I know a salesman who likes to go to the casino after he closes a big sale. Years ago, I knew a reporter who, after landing one of his stories on the front page of his paper, loved to pick up a prostitute as his reward. A pretty picture? Hardly. But it's a picture consistent with human nature. Precisely when we ought to be showing off our better selves, we tend to show what we're really made of.

The Iraqi people had, for a whole generation, been desperately wronged. It's not morally right, of course, to take justice into your own hands. But it's also not hard to understand how after being stolen from, killed, raped, dismembered, disfigured, and otherwise brutalized, the Iraqi people tended to rationalize and to say: "I'm going to get some of it back!"

Rotten trees do not bear good fruit. Jesus' teaching on the subject, if it has any meaning at all, has to apply to the task of education. So imagine having the imprint of Saddam Hussein writ large over almost every aspect of life over a period of some 35 years. Imagine shaping the moral and ethical identity of 18 million boys and girls with a thug's picture hanging in every classroom. Remember that the only people who landed jobs as teachers and school administrators were those who were willing, one way or another, to express their complicity with such a hooligan. So now, on what possible basis do you expect such people to emerge, the day after such an experience is ended, with some fine-tuned sense of moral judgment? Why should Iraqi students have expected anything but a summa cum laude diploma in thuggery?

The rotten trees had not all been chopped down. Saddam loyalists were disappearing by the thousand from the battlefront. A terrifying number were killed. But tens of thousands of others had literally dropped their uniforms, changed their clothes, and faded into the civilian masses. Were they a significant factor among the looters? Who can tell? But both the moral shiftlessness and the desire to destabilize the society are consistent with the havoc the looting actually produced.

Islam offers morality by external control instead of inner transformation. When the controls go away, so does the morality (see page 13).

So, I say, who could have been surprised that a few days of looting emptied so many stores, government offices, and other public places? The real surprise would have been if it hadn't taken place. And maybe General Franks's critics have a point, that the war plan should have been better prepared for such a development.

But here's the sobering reality. Every one of those conditions still exists. Every one of them stands as an occasion not just for physical looting, but more soberly for the continued looting of trust and goodwill that Iraq's fledgling new government will need.

Not least among the caution signs for the future is the third point listed above. Can a nation-two-thirds of whose population have been taught all their morals and ethics by the henchmen of Saddam Hussein-now turn on a dime and muster the discipline and vision to govern themselves, and then to take their place on the world stage as a modern state?

At Gettysburg almost 140 years ago, Abraham Lincoln posed a tough question: "Now we are engaged in a great civil war," he said, "testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure." A modern Iraqi statesman might change the question just a bit: "Now we are engaged in a great battle," he might suggest, "testing whether a nation, so brainwashed and so indoctrinated, can long endure." The outside threats are serious enough. It's those from the inside that will be most telling.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


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