The man I saw on the late night news last week
looked like anything but the revolutionary type. A professor, maybe. A bank
manager, perhaps. But not your garden-variety revolutionary. But he is. And he
should be. And we should be listening to him, I think, because he has something
to teach us about the human spirit in an age of unbridled might, thoughtless
pragmatism and money. Or as the Book of Proverbs puts it: “The human spirit will
endure infirmity but a broken spirit who can bear?”
The man’s name is
Martin Sullivan and he directed — or had directed, that is — an agency most
people didn’t even know existed. Sullivan was chairperson of the “President’s
Commission for Cultural Property.” Martin Sullivan is definitely not the kind of
person we are accustomed to hearing from on CNN prime time. The difference is
that Sullivan had just resigned from his position on this obscure little
committee. The reason he gave the administration — and then the public — for his
withdrawal from the commission was the failure of the United States to protect
The National Museum of Iraq.
To refresh our
memory, the National Museum of Iraq harbored artifacts of civilization that
began in the area of Mesopotamia over 7,000 years ago. Within 48 hours of the
fall of the Hussein government, 50,000 of those art pieces and artifacts had
been carried away by thousands of looters. Missing, officials said, were a solid
gold harp from the Sumerian era of 3000 BC, a sculpted head of a woman from Uruk,
one of the region's greatest cities 4,000 years ago, and a collection of gold
jewelry of the same age. The loss of such indicators of the history of humankind
approaches the incalculable.
nothing to Americans,” Sullivan said, “but it is the record of the human race.
... These things did not belong to Iraq, they belonged to the world.” His point
was clear: the museum was more than a national treasure, which would have been
bad enough — it was universal property. It was a chain of information about the
cultural development of the human race that had been destroyed in one of
humanity’s lowest moments. Worse, no one — not the Pentagon, not the
administration, not the U.S. soldiers on site — had cared enough to protect it.
The Pentagon had
been warned about the value of the items by scholars all over the world. The
petitions for protection had come from around the globe, Sullivan said. But,
according to The New York Times, an American tank sat 300 meters away and
did nothing while thousands poured out of the building carrying the treasures of
the world away in laundry baskets. Sought out by museum curators, soldiers came
and shot into the air for 30 minutes and then left. When they did, the looters
returned; the soldiers did not.
outraged, depressed, Sullivan resigned his post.
“But why?” the
reporter asked. “After all, it’s done now. What good will your resignation do?”
And Sullivan gave the answer I haven’t been able to forget. He said something
like this: “Yes, it’s too late to do anything for the museum itself. But I have
to know that I did everything I could to make people understand how terrible
this is. It should never have happened. It didn’t need to have happened.”
CNN moved on to
bigger and better stories: murder investigations and the weather and scenes of
American triumph on the streets of Iraq. But I couldn’t forget Sullivan — the
man who stood by another set of human values right to the end.
And I couldn’t
forget either the fact that we had managed to protect the oil fields. We glowed
over the fact that only five wells had been lost. We had even managed to get
water to the fields in case of oil fires there, though we couldn’t get water, we
said, to the people in the city of Basra.
From where I
stand, the three vignettes — the looting of a museum while we stood by, the
guarded oil fields, the water that went for oil wells but not for people — are
all too clear a demonstration of U.S. values. It’s hard to believe that all of
this is “liberation” of the human spirit.
But as long as
there is left in the nation one man the quality of Martin Sullivan, there may
still be hope for us.
The Talmud teaches
that the miracle of the Red Sea is not that the waters parted. The miracle of
the Red Sea, the rabbis taught, was that the first Jew walked through it. Only
then did the rest of the Exodus community follow suit. Only then was the
If there are
people among us yet with human spirit enough to care more for the preservation
of human history than its destruction, we may even complete the revolution of
spirit this country clearly needs.
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