The sergeant told me it was the most powerful bomb he’d witnessed in Baghdad since the Canal Hotel explosion last August. Manning a roadblock 50 feet from the site, the Tennessee Guardsman titled his helmet toward a dozen cars and a blue and white city bus destroyed by the January 18 blast. “It blew a hole in the pavement half the size of a Humvee,” he grunted. Military spokesmen I talked to later believed that the suicide car bomber had intended to ram the aptly named “Assassin’s Gate” entrance to CPA headquarters but panicked instead, detonating 1,000 pounds of plastic explosives in civilian traffic lined up to enter the compound. Along with the bomber, 29 Iraqis and two American contractors died. “Nothing left of them but burnt metal and charred bodies,” the soldier said.
I’d planned to visit CPA headquarters that morning; fortunately, I was late. Now, three hours after the explosion, I found an un-Baghdad-like calm had descended on the area. Birds chattered in trees, kids played in the traffic-free street, shopkeepers swept up shattered window glass. As I watched the body recovery team probe the debris for human remains, it seemed impossible to believe that right there, not long ago, 31 innocent people had perished. I tried to concentrate on that fact, but my heart went cold and my thoughts drifted away. A little ashamed at my detachment, I took my satellite phone and called my wife in New York to tell her I was okay. That, at least, I could do.
Later that night, I went down to dinner in my hotel restaurant, sitting by chance beside a table of Christian activists from America and Canada. As if to make clear anti-occupation sentiments clear, they were loudly snickering at the behavior of U.S. troops—specifically, the GIs’ tendency to wear sunglasses when on patrol. Why, everyone knows the Arabs value eye contact, the Christians sneered. How stupid, how culturally insensitive, how American can you be? And these are the people who want to bring democracy to the Middle East? I wondered if these God-fearing war protestors had expended similar energy condemning the murderers who packed a Toyota pick-up truck with explosives and sent it into the Baghdad streets—but something told me they had not.
In my two trips to Iraq, I’ve come to dread these kinds of leftists. You run into them everywhere—in teahouses, restaurants, hotel lobbies, anyplace where Westerners gather. Their ranks include NGO workers, European journalists, religious pacifists, Canadians of every stripe—disparate groups united by their sense of moral superiority, opposition to the war in Iraq and their disdain for the United States. Together, they form a kind of humanitarian chorus which decries Coalition abuses of Iraqi citizens—yet falls silent before Ba’athist crimes, or the horror of suicide bombing. “I refuse to use the word ‘terrorist’ to describe those who resist the U.S. occupation,” a Baghdad-based member of a Canadian Mennonite group once told me. “Those are terms used by the American government.”
There’s a place for activists in Iraq, of course. If democracy is to take root here, the country needs to experience the full spectrum of civic life, from voting booths and private enterprise, to labor unions, environmentalists, feminists and civil rights lawyers. (I’ll know when Iraqi democracy has arrived when I hear of the first noise harassment suit against a mosque for too loudly calling the faithful to prayer.) And I’ve met dedicated organizers who travel this country, often at their peril, attempting to help Iraqis build the kind of grassroots institutions a free society requires.
Too often, though, the main interest of leftists is not Iraq, but the perceived faults of the U.S. Take, for example, the foreign press. When I visited last fall, numerous Baghdadis complained to me how European journalists frequently ignored the joy Iraqis felt with the fall of Saddam; instead, they sought mainly to report on (or in some cases, manufacture) anti-American sentiment. “The French were the worst,” groused sculptor Haider Wady. “They keep trying to get us to say bad things about the war and the Americans.”
Nowadays, one sees in Iraq a newer, more subtle form of anti-Americanism. It’s particularly evident among increasing numbers of war zone tourists flooding the country: academics, documentary filmmakers, religious activists, rockstars, performance artists and others who drop into Baghdad for a short time to wring their hands over the city’s post-war conditions. Recently, I met the members of CODEPINK—a self-described “grassroots peace and social justice movement”—which specializes in taking women on week-long excursions among the city’s most wretched inhabitants: homeless people, traumatized children, families destroyed by trigger-happy U.S. soldiers. “Robin Williams has asked us to find a children’s hospital he can donate money to,” co-founder Jodie Evans informed me.
No one wants to begrudge such altruism, of course. Still, the selective concerns of CODEPINK and other do-gooders trouble me. They tend to focus their attention on Iraqis who have suffered from American abuses, rarely speaking to people who endured Ba’athist crimes. “Oh we know all about that,” a Philadelphia Quaker visiting Baghdad replied off-handedly when I questioned her on this point. “We’ve been to El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala…” Demonstrating the narrowness of her experiences in Iraq, a woman traveling with CODEPINK asked me, “How bad was Saddam really?” As for the victims of terrorist bombings, no one ever mentions them; they are not a stop of the leftist’s pity circuit.
Why is this? Why are so many activists dismissive of the atrocities of Saddam and mute when it comes to terrorism? The short answer, I think is: evil diminishes. The hideousness of the Iraqi dictator and the abomination of suicide bombings deadens our emotions, paralyzes our moral sense and shames us for our inability to comprehend such malevolence. How much more comforting it is to censure a rational, tolerant, accountable entity like the United States! How much more expansive one’s ego feels when ridiculing the shortcomings and failures of a democracy!
I’m not saying American policy in Iraq—or anywhere else, for that matter—is above criticism. What I am saying is that much of the supercilious breast-beating one sees with leftists here derives from a kind of self-congratulatory narcissism, a sense that their criticism of the occupation makes them larger, better people. Meanwhile, the real dangers Iraq faces—jihadist terror, nihilistic attacks on soldiers in the Sunni Triangle and the “black scenario” of Islamist rule, followed by civil war—loom ever larger. But these problems are impervious to the moral superiority of leftists. They do not make anyone feel better about themselves. And they won’t be solved by anti-Americanism and activist compassion.
Affixed to the wall of a busy corridor of CPA headquarters in Baghdad—actually one of Saddam’s enormous presidential palaces—is a photocopied snapshot of a young Iraqi woman. Once a translator for the U.S. military, the pretty red-head is smiling at the camera, a Santa Claus cap perched on her head. On January 18, she was waiting in traffic to enter CPA headquarters when the suicide bomber struck. Her car was instantly set aflame and the 29 year-old, who a month earlier had gotten engaged to be married, was incinerated. She is mourned by her colleagues at the CPA. But you will be hard pressed to hear about her death among the Western activists in Baghdad. Preoccupied with American human rights abuses, the shortcomings of the occupation and their own self-esteem, these humanitarians will continue to act as if her murder—and that of dozens of others killed in terrorist bombings across Iraq—never occurred.