Today, the news tells of between 50 and 150 people from Iraq's Higher Education Ministry were rounded up and hauled off into the unknown.
The universities have now been closed until the security situation improves.
I am puzzled (as I suppose many people are) at how a society can fall into such a state as Baghdad. It would seem to be the case that somebody would get tired of all of the death and violence and try to put an end to it. Furthermore, it would seem rational for the people to put their support behind whomever seems best able to deal with the violence.
But this is not what happens.
Divisiveness and Violence
At times, I think of the sectarian strife in Iraq and compare it to the political battles in this country. Iraq is divided into Shiite and Sunni. They are at war with each other - killing each other. America is divided between Democrat and Republican. The war of words gets pretty strong from time to time. A few extremists get to the point there they are making physical threats against those who belong to the other side. Yet, we seem to have made the decision that, no matter how much Americans hate each other, we will fight our battles in the polls, rather than on the streets.
Part of this is because we insist on condemning - even to those who would otherwise be our allies - who step out of bounds and suggest unreasonable harm or violence against groups who disagree with us. Certainly, there are fringe elements who cheer eco-terrorists, abortion-clinic bombers, and people who mail threats and mysterious white powder to political rivals. However, the vast majority of those even in the Party whose members stepped out of line quickly turn against those who go too far.
Indeed, I would suggest, this is where most of our peace comes from. It does not come from Democrats criticizing Republicans who step out of line, and Republicans criticizing Democrats who step out of line. It comes from Democrats (and Independents) condemning other Democrats who go too far, and Republicans (and Independents) condemning Republicans who go too far.
I do have worries that the barrier against violence is not as high as it should be. Ann Coulter's call to kill judges she does not approve of should have caused her to be roundly condemned for her words - even among other Republicans. The cry should have been that such Coulter is advocating a situation much like that in Iraq, with a round of assassinations and counter-assassinations. A defense could be made that, in this country, nobody would take her seriously. Yet, we have had judges assassinated - and the families of judges killed, just like in Iraq. The best way to keep this from becoming common is to condemn any who advocate it - to make it known that it is not tolerated here.
I do not believe that Democrats and Republicans in this country carry this prohibition far enough. They are far too willing to turn a blind eye to the lies and political distortions of political allies when used against political rivals. Slanderous attack ads should attract the ire of members even of the party of the candidate making the ad - for denigrating the Party's core values of truth and honest (if the Party has such values). However, it is at least a good thing that they draw the line on violence.
Yet, in Iraq, the situation is worse. It does little good for a Shiite to condemn Sunni murderers, or Sunni to condemn Shiite murderers. This is widely perceived as just another part of the conflict - something to be expected. Real change will come when Shiites condemn Shiite murderers and Sunni condemn Sunni murderers. Furthermore, the more closely linked the person who does the condemning, and the person condemned, the more potent the condemnation becomes.
We need to learn a lesson from the people of Iraq. We need to learn the importance of quickly standing up to members of whatever groups we belong to when they carry their dislike of some other group too far - to the point that they are engaging in immoral actions such as murder, theft, vandalism, or even lies and deception.
On this measure, there is at least the appearance that the Democratic Party as a group is healthier than the Republican Party. The Democrats allow disputes within the party. They squabble among themselves. This is often criticized, particularly when they are compared to Republican unity and discipline. However, Republican unity and discipline allows the party to unite behind and create a uniform and disciplined force in favor of some very stupid, sometimes very wrong ideas. Rather than advocate that the Democrats should be more like the Republicans, I think that the Republicans could benefit from some internal debate - from the freedom of its members to stand up and criticize the Party leaders.
Indeed, it may be a wise policy, for people who are interested in keeping one's society from moving towards the type of decay we find in Iraq, to keep the doctrine of internal criticism healthy, and never be shy to criticize those in one's own group who have taken their dislike for others into the realm of lies, deceipt, vandalism, or violence, or any threat to do the same.
The Sanctity of the University
I have a second comment that I would like to make - related to the first - regarding the decision to shut down the universities.
I suppose that, as an atheist and a worshipper of knowledge and truth, I view the University the way some theists might view a church. We cannot imagine people closing down the temples at a time of civil strife. They should be even less inclined to close down the universities. Yes, there is a danger that those who go to the university may be subject to more violence such as these kidnappings. Yet, there is a danger that people going to the mosque are at risk of some sort of violence as well. Again, that does not argue for closing down the churches.
(There may be an argument for going after a church-centered terrorist organization who is going out and murdering others in the name of God, but that is a different argument. The universities, so far as I know, are not guilty of gathering gangs of students together into an army to go out and slaughter the uneducated.)
More importantly, educated people are better at solving problems than ignorant people. President Bush created much of the mess he created because he did not care to listen to educated people. He thought that he alone - using his private pipeline to God - could come up with all of the answers and that his plans, built as they were on faith, could not fail. God would not let them fail.
If he had listened to experts in the field - allowing them to teach him rather than using his 'certain' knowledge to judge the quality of their advice - we would have been far better off as a country.
The same is true in Iraq. They, too, need to learn to respect the university and the professors who teach there as they would respect their own religious leaders. This does not mean giving them blind obedience (scholarship does not lend itself well to blind obedience, but enlightened direction), but at least respecting them and their position enough to condemn those who attack such people.
This raid, and the decision to close the universities, is going to do significant long-term damage to the country.
Never stop the learning.