Why not ransom it back?

The looting of the archeological museum in Baghdad, which apparently was one of the most important centers of Middle Eastern antiquities in the world, is a great loss. In retrospect, it’s too bad that the Coalition didn’t make plans to protect it, but no one who didn’t predict that Baghdad would fall as quickly as it did is really in a position to complain.

Again, one might wish that, unprepared as they were, the conquering armies had at least posted some troops at the museum to chase away looters, but on the other hand if you’d been in charge would you have wanted to risk having soldiers kill Iraqi civilians in defense of the relics? I’m not saying that “no” is the only possible answer, but it’s certainly one possible answer.

Atrios’ comparison of the looting of the museum to the destruction of the Standing Buddhas in Afghanistan seems off-target; the outrage about the Buddhas was in part directed at deliberate (and religiously-motivated) vandalism by what was then the government of Afghanistan; if they’d been destroyed by a meteor only the art historians would have cared. No one in authority decided to have the museum looted, or failed to protect it, as a way of expressing contempt for the civilizations of Mesopotamia; the looting was just one of the things that happens in wartime.

However, that’s all water under the bridge. The question is what to do now. Today’s newspapers have Secretary Powell blustering about how anyone who buys, sells, or keeps any of the loot is extremely naughty, and don’t let us catch you doing that, young man. They also have experts predicting that essentially none of the stolen items will be recovered.

Here’s a radical proposal: Just buy the stuff back. Put together a fund, hire some experts, and say that for the next month anyone who comes in with anything stolen will get 10% of its worth if it were legitimately on the market, no questions asked. That’s a lot better deal than most thieves can make for themselves, and a bargain for the antiquarians.

Does it reward bad behavior? Sure it does. But unless we expect Baghdad to be lootable again soon, or think that the thieves in the next city that falls to an invader will have read the newspapers and loot with more confidence knowing the stuff will then be bought back, the practical consequence of rewarding bad behavior in this case is small, while the practical consequence of losing what the museum contained is great.

The cost would be the rounding error in the cost of a day’s military operations, and the political gain from our indicating a lively concern for Iraqi national self-respect might be noticeable.

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