April 14, 2003

Looting

In light of the administration’s stated intention to use the infrastructure of the former government of Iraq as a basis for an interim government, the military’s apparent indifference to looting in Baghdad and elsewhere is perplexing. There may indeed be some wisdom in letting oppressed Iraqis blow off steam; destroying Saddam Hussein statues is preferable to attacking American tanks. Looting is hardly a civic virtue to be encouraged, however, even if limited to buildings of the fallen regime. Those buildings will be needed for whatever government is established in the future, and that government will need desks, computers, and filing cabinets. Every looted piece of office equipment is potentially an item that will need to be replaced by American taxpayers. Some of the looted goods, of course, may be irreplaceable—government documents that could help us document atrocities and weapons violations by the former regime. Why would we entrust these to Iraqi looters?

What is taking place is senseless, recreational looting. People are taking property for which they clearly have no use. Alas, much of the damage has already been done. The worst of it—because the looted objects are irreplaceable and more important than mere government paperwork—has been the theft and destruction of antiquities from the national museum, documentation of the world’s oldest civilizations. This is a substantially worse crime against our shared cultural heritage than the destruction of monumental Buddhas by the Taliban. (This experience suggests the wisdom of distributing ancient artifacts to museums around the world, rather than concentrating them in the region of their origin. That’s an argument for another day, however.)

The military is not fond of taking on police duties. The need to bring civil order to Iraq is acute, however, and no other institutions are available. The U.S. must end the chaos in the streets immediately. Anarchy is seldom the mother of democracy.

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