WASHINGTON — I had a strange experience the other morning at the Heritage Foundation. I watched seven Iraqi men as they sat through a documentary that included scenes of their own right hands being lopped off by Saddam Hussein’s “physicians” at the now-famous Abu Ghraib prison in the mid-’90s. Some fidgeted, some cried, and others stared straight ahead, muscles tensed.
These men are the subject of Remembering Saddam, produced by former ABC and NBC correspondent Don North shortly after the liberation of Baghdad last year. Interviews of the men and their families are juxtaposed with footage that was seized by the U.S. forces of the amputations and other atrocities.
The seven men lost their hands for the crime of dealing in American currency, which was forbidden by Saddam Hussein in the aftermath of the Gulf War. Two of the amputees had only been checking the value of the American currency by phone to determine the price of gold, which is tied to the dollar. Nevertheless, Saddam’s thugs came knocking and, for nearly a year, they called the same cramped 20-by-30 foot cell home.
Finally, punishment was meted out: Right hands were lopped off and crosses were tattooed to their foreheads designating them as marked men — literally. Two weeks later, in what has got to rank somewhere near the top on the tragic, tragic timing scale, Saddam lifted the ban on trading in American currency.
The whole presentation — including the Iraqis showing off the new $50,000 prosthetic hands American doctors had donated to them — was touching. To hear these men speak about living under tyranny and the liberation was unforgettable.
IN THE PRESENCE of these Iraqis, it was difficult not to feel that the much-maligned recent war was, yes, just. Both in the documentary interviews and in the Q&A session after the screening, the mostly shy, soft-spoken Iraqis frequently thanked God for testing them with the loss of their hands, and refused to curse their fate.
“I know God gave me patience and another hand,” one man said. “But even so, I still feel saddened.”
After watching their own leader build palaces and live the life of a reclusive egomaniac, the men were in awe of the approachability of George W. Bush, whom they had all recently spent close to an hour with. The Iraqis picked up on the small things we never think about: the modesty and smallness of the Oval Office; that an “ordinary person” could meet the most powerful man in the world; that they were not strip-searched before the meeting, and that they waited only minutes for him to show.
Tempers flared whenever the war was called into question. “I wish there were demonstrations as well to show the injustice and the suffering of the Iraqi people,” said one of the amputees when asked about peace demonstrations. This echoed a refrain from the documentary, that there was “stability under Saddam, but it was stability with a price,” and it was steep: “complete submissiveness, complete silence.”
This, the interviewee explained, has given way to “no stability. But now everyone is equal. Now everyone is talking. Everyone expresses their opinion. It was never like this before.”
But the men also made comments that American policy makers may want to write down. First, even these Iraqis, who suffered torture and terror at the hands of the Hussein regime — our absolute biggest supporters in Iraq — were looking forward to the day we leave.
“The liberation of our country was well justified,” one of the men said. “But we hope they don’t stay too long.”
Second, the Iraqis tend to have an inflated opinion of what and how fast Americans can accomplish things. One amputee noted that the U.S. “went to the moon and space, so of course we have a positive view of this giant.” But the space shuttle will likely prove much easier and faster to build than democracy in the Middle East.
AFTERWARD, AS PEOPLE milled about, waiting for free copies of Joseph Agris’ White Knight in Blue Shades: The Authorized Biography of Marvin Zindler, the chitchat took a predictable turn. Since these men lost their right hands at Abu Ghraib and since Abu Ghraib was the scene of the recent photos splashed across the front pages of newspapers around the world, this conservative crowd started with the better-than-Saddam game.
Specifically, it was said that, sure, what the guards did was not a good thing, but they hardly hacked anyone’s limbs off, or stuffed seven men in a small cell for nearly a year on absurd charges. Why, for that matter, the U.S. forces as a whole had acquitted themselves much better than Saddam Hussein ever did, so what’s the problem?
Pardon me while I mount my high horse — that trusty steed — but do we really want to go there? Do we want to use Hussein’s crimes as the standard? Is everything up to the chopping off of a prisoner’s hand now acceptable? When I raised the objection, fellow book-liners pulled out the well-worn conversation-ending objection that “Saddam Hussein gassed his own people.” So there.
“These Americans who did this will be punished,” one of the amputees recently told the Washington Post. “Under Saddam, such abuses were rewarded and praised.”
This Iraqi understands the issue better than some of my fellow conservatives. It is not the intensity of abuse that determines the righteousness of a civilization. It’s the willingness to punish abuses.
As for the man responsible for the construction of Abu Ghraib, focal point of so much suffering for so many, one amputee, chin held high, had a message, “Look at where the person that cut off our hands is now, and look at where we are.”
Shawn Macomber is a reporter for The American Spectator. He runs the website Return of the Primitive.