A headline in the British liberal newspaper, the Guardian, caught my eye recently: IRAQIS CAN’T BE BLAMED FOR THE CHAOS UNLEASHED BY INVASION. The writer was that newspaper’s veteran foreign correspondent, Jonathan Steele (another immortal headline to one of his articles, in May 2002, read: NEW YORK IS STARTING TO FEEL LIKE BREZHNEV’S MOSCOW).
Let us grant, for argument’s sake, the article’s premise: that American policy in Iraq has been naive, rash, foolish, precipitate, and culpable. Yet still it would not follow that “Iraqis can’t be blamed” and so forth, unless one also believed what not even the severest critics of the Bush administration have alleged—that the American army, or other agents of the American government, have desired, planned, and even executed the ongoing terrorist attacks in Baghdad.
The only other explanation of the non-culpability of Iraqis would be that they were not really full members of the human race—in other words, that they did not reflect upon their circumstances and act upon their reflections in the way that the fully responsible and therefore potentially culpable Americans do.
The headline makes clear that double standards are about to apply, double standards that are not flattering to the Iraqis’ capacity for independent action, despite the evident wish of the author to display as conspicuously as possible his sympathy with them by means of exculpating them. Forgive them, he invites all men of goodwill, for they know not what they do.
Like hell, they don’t.
Not even the most ardent, anthropomorphic dog-lover credits his pet with a fully developed moral sense, and he therefore regards its misdemeanors with an indulgence that he would not extend to a ten-year-old child. The author regards Iraqis as if they were in the same moral category as pets: for can one really say that people who travel to a different part of the city to explode bombs, resulting in scores of deaths of people chosen merely because they are (most of them) of a different religious confession, do not appreciate what they are doing, any more than a dog appreciates what it does when it knocks over a precious porcelain vase?
Is there anything in the American invasion, however deeply ill judged you might consider it, that makes these bombings as inescapable as the weather, and that therefore renders those who carry them out wholly blameless? Is not a prerequisite for these bombings that those who carry them out consciously decide to do so? And if it is not wicked to kill people in this fashion, it is difficult to know what is wicked. Not the Iraqis, but some of the Iraqis—presumably a small minority—can take blame to a very considerable extent for the chaos in Iraq.
Dare I say it: the inability to take seriously the culpability of men and women who, as a matter of policy or tactics, kill large numbers of passers-by and bystanders is a hangover of the late Victorian imperial sensibility, which viewed much of the world’s population as intellectual and moral minors. Special pleading of the kind encapsulated in the headline is not a manifestation of broadmindedness or generosity but of deep-seated arrogance.