Thursday, May 15, 2003

Thoughts on the looting, or lack of it

Regular readers will know that I got extremely upset about the apparent looting of the Iraqi National Museum. It is now clear that the looting was on a much smaller scale than was reported at the time. I am profoundly grateful that this is so, and that many more of Iraq's cultural treasures are intact than it appeared.

I still think that if looters had been going in and out of the museum for two whole days, and 70000 to 150000 artifacts had been stolen, it would have been negligence on the part of the American forces and their commanders if they had done nothing about it. However, it is now clear that this did not happen, and that the number of stolen artificats was actually in the tens to hundreds, and many of these thefts may have been inside jobs of one kind or another. In this case there is no reasonable way that American forces could have stopped the looting, and the forces were in no way negligent. I still think that Don Rumsfeld's statement about "How many vases could there be?" shows profound ignorance about ten thousand years of history of Iraq, but that isn't really the issue here.

All that said, even if only 20 artifacts were taken it is still likely that the cultural damage due to the looting is quite considerable. As Jay points out, if you steal the 20 most important artifacts from almost any museum, you have likely taken a large portion of the total value of the collection, at least in financial terms. However, it seems clear that the looters knew what they were looking for, and that they stole specific items so that they could sell them to "collectors" (sneer quotes fully justified, I think) rather than just plundering in the hope that they might be able to get something indeterminate for them later. This hopefully means that the items were mostly not damaged in the looting. The number of items looks sufficiently small that trying to recover a fair proportion of them doesn't look quite so hopeless. If the Americans monitor the borders and the art trade with very strict instructions what to look for, then hopefully some will turn up. Any American soldiers or officials who succeed in recovering any of these artifacts deserve tremendous praise. I hope I will see at least some of this.

However, what I now want to know is where the hell did those news stories about 70000 and 150000 arifacts being looted come from? Was Jayson Blair writing about the subject? Were these stories simply being made up by people at the BBC who wanted to make the Americans look bad? Was it Ba'athists wanting to make the Americans look bad? I do not know how it is possible to confuse 20 or 200 or even 2000 items with 150000. And why did the whole media report the stories like this? Why was there so much credulity all the way from Iraq to me. Someone does need to investigate.

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