The LA Times (6/20/05, E1+) reports on a new book, “The Looting of the Iraq Museum, Baghdad,” ed. Donny George, the director of the museum. The Times story notes that “early estimates of losses turned out to be wildly inflated.” In fact, the “early estimates” were that something like 150,000 pieces were stolen in 48 hours. A moment’s reflection on the logistic issues would have shown that that couldn’t be right. The story has never been told about how the New York Times and other media could have been so gullible as to report such claims or how it came about that the NY Times correspondent in Baghdad came up with these false claims–and doubtless we will never learn how this could have happened. Eventually, the very newspapers that misreported the story and collected equally gullible expressions of shock and outrage from academics and others reported the results of an Army investigation that came much closer to the facts. But by then the story had already been used up in polemics against the invasion, which were never retracted, corrected, or apologized for.
The fact is that perhaps 15,000 objects were stolen, with some indications pointing to an inside job. About half of these have been recovered, and the director remarks that “in an almost daily action, people–police, customs officers at the airport–are bringing objects to the museum.” Iraqis are even buying pieces with their own money and returning them.
This is not the only case when someone who asks the question, exactly how many pieces were stolen?, hears the accusation, you are “minimizing the seriousness of the issue.” But seeking precise facts is not minimizing anything. The demand for indignation without precision is mental laziness motivated by the desire to recruit an unfortunate or even tragic event for a polemical purpose whose intensity is permitted to outrun evidence. This is a common fallacy in political arguments where facts are used not as the basis for a conclusion–critical or not–but as talismans for opinions formed in passion and expressed in fury. The aim is not to find the truth nor even to defeat a misinformed opponent but to foreclose debate by implying that anyone who disagrees or even asks for details is morally defective and outrageously irrational. Moral posturing replaces analysis and debate.
The museum has still not been reopened. It is “in a very hot spot in Baghdad,” near a center of insurgent activity. Two museum guards were wounded by gunfire and hospitalized. But the end of the article (why is this saved for the end?) has some good news. The museum is being fortified and refurbished. Motion detectors and surveillance cameras are being installed in the galleries. The staff have been given courses, “mostly outside the country.” Director George concludes, “We will reopen the IraqiMuseum at a very high standard. I am looking forward to the party.” Can anyone tell me if the New York Times carried this story? Will any of their reporters be attending the party?