Looting, revisited

Patrick Nielsen Hayden at Electrolite passes along some troubling thoughts about the looting in Iraq from Daniel McGrory (in the Murdoch-owned London Times).

It seems that British forces were encouraging looting of Baath Party offices, government agencies, and the private homes of officials of the Saddam Hussein regime as visual symbols that it would not be coming back to power. As early as April 5, there were protests from the UN that such looting violated the laws of war.

In that context, the fairly obviously staged scene of Iraqis (with substantial assistance from US military forces) pulling down the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad takes on a different flavor. Given what apparently was a history of looting of regional museums after the first Gulf War, what happened in Baghdad could not have been a surprise. Shouldn’t someone have been thinking about the fact that encouraging the development of an atmosphere of joyous property destruction might have some unwanted side effects? (The statue was pulled down on April 9th; the museum was looted an the library burned the 11th.)

Reading the CNN account of Secretary Rumsfeld’s response to questions about the looting (“Stuff happens”) only reinforces the idea that no one in Washington is actually very distressed about what apparently was a cultural disaster of historic proportions.

In an earlier post, I took what in retrospect seems an unduly understanding line toward the behavior of American decision-makers. In light of the above, it seems reasonable to think that we could and should have taken a more aggressive approach to guarding the museum and the library. After all, we managed to guard the oil ministry.

If our leaders were saying “This was a horrible disaster and we now wish we had done more to prevent it,” or even “This was a horrible disaster and we knew it might happen but decided that the human toll from trying to prevent it would have been too great,” I’d be willing to chalk it up to experience. What’s galling is the apparent indifference to the disaster itself; “Hey, a bunch of old pots got smashed or stolen and some dusty books got burned. Too bad.”

There are consequences to being ruled by barbarians.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com