At Large

Constitutional Indifference

A new constitution seems to be the last thing on Iraqi minds.

By 8.18.05

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BAGHDAD -- The Iraq constitutional convention could not complete its work by last Monday's due date so it did the next best thing: it moved the due date. The writers now have an additional week to collect their thoughts and come up with a new document. Opinions differ widely as to whether this is doable. The most frequently expressed view is that the differences and hatreds that divide the Iraqis are too deeply ingrained and too strongly felt to be papered over by a new constitution.

Part of the problem is that Iraq is a country with no history of negotiation and political give and take. In Iraq the concept of everyone having to give a little to achieve an agreement for the greater good is unknown. For Iraqis who don't get everything they want, the only alternative is to storm out of the room.

While the new Iraqi constitution foundered, what most troubled me -- as an American who has seen his country invest much blood and treasure here -- is the attitude of the average Iraqi on the street. On Monday I spoke to between 25 and 30 Iraqis about this subject in some detail. I asked each one of them: Will there be a new Constitution tonight? Or, next week? Or, in three months? The reply from every single Iraqi was identical: "I don't care!" or "Who cares!" To this startling response each added some variation of "I have other things to worry about!"

Some of the people I queried were total strangers; some spoke English; some did not (someone translated); some were colleagues from work or from among Iraqi subcontractors. Altogether fewer than three dozen people, not enough for a legitimate statistical sampling. The real eye-opener, nonetheless, was that 100% of the responses were "I don't care!" or "Who cares!"

The apparent indifference of so many Iraqis to what is going on has obvious causes. When I said to Ali, one of our employees, "How can you not care? Aren't you glad Saddam is gone?" his quick reply was, "At least we had peace and security when Saddam was here."

When I pressed him further he reacted angrily and launched into a diatribe that I would paraphrase as follows:

"You ask how can I not care? I don't care because right now what matters to me much more than a constitution is that we have no safety, we have no security, we can't go out for fear of being killed, or kidnapped, or having our head cut off right in the middle of the street! You precious Americans are always standing on a box and shouting about liberty, and freedom and constitutions!

"But none of you have to worry about being killed every time you go out, or that your children will be kidnapped and killed. I tell you, John, when I don't have not to worry about that anymore -- then I will be happy to talk with you or George Bush, or anyone else about the constitution."

As we talked, the lights in our kitchen flickered and went out. They stayed off for about five minutes and then came back on very brightly. The generator had finally kicked in. Ali then continued:

"You see, John, your lights came back on. In my house there are lights maybe two hours a day and that is in the afternoon. There is nothing at night. Do you know what it is like to live like that every day? And, do you know about the water? There is no water, or most of the time there is no water Bottled water is too expensive for baths, but twice a week my wife and I boil up ten liters of bottled water and pour it in the bathtub for a bath for our sons. Right now, John, I can't think about the constitution because all I can think of is keeping my family fed and alive and I am barely succeeding!

"I like my job with your American company but if anyone knew where I work, I would be killed right away. You don't have to worry about that, do you?"

There, from the mouth of one Iraqi, are the reasons he doesn't care if there is a constitution.

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