Ever since the fall of Baghdad, when looters went rampaging through the city, a centuries-old assumption about 'the people' has lurked, barely spoken, beneath the ghastly aftermath of the war. It is that the people, meaning 'people en masse', are incapable of restraining themselves. In the case of Iraq, two further assumptions are in play. First, people freed from the yoke of oppressive dictatorship are most at risk: the excesses of the Iraqi populace are laid at the door of Saddam Hussein at the very moment he loses his power to control them, and not, for example, seen as the responsibility of the occupying armies. Second, the Iraqi people are especially prone to such behaviour because they fall outside the civilising processes of the West. Thus beneath Donald Rumsfeld's magnificently evasive 'Stuff happens' - the formula allows us to think for a second that such things might happen to anyone, including presumably us, or even him - we glimpse a much harsher, discriminatory form of judgment. Between dictatorship and barbarity, Iraq stands condemned: one reason, no doubt, democracy has to be imported and cannot be entrusted to the Iraqis themselves, even while the images from Abu Ghraib suggest that there is no foundation for such self-serving discriminations between them and us.
LRB 8 July 2004 | PDF Download