The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date: May 16, 2003
By JOAN CHITTISTER
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 mans name is Martin Sullivan and he directed an agency most people didnt even know existed. Sullivan was chairperson of the Presidents 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.
The museum 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 B.C., a sculpted head of a woman from Uruk, one of the regions 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.
This means 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 humanitys 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.
So, ashamed, outraged, depressed, Sullivan resigned his post.
But why? the reporter asked. After all, its done now. What good will your resignation do? And Sullivan gave the answer I havent been able to forget. He said something like this: Yes, its 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 didnt 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 couldnt forget Sullivan -- the man who stood by another set of human values right to the end.
And I couldnt 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 couldnt 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. Its 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 revolution secure.
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.
Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister, author and lecturer, lives in Erie, Pa.
National Catholic Reporter, May 16, 2003
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