Last December I posted this excerpt from an article by Rebecca Weisser about Le Livre Noir de Saddam Hussein (The Black Book of Saddam Hussein). There's another discussion of it here by Gerard Alexander. After giving some account of the book's content, Alexander wonders why a book collecting such 'familiar' material was necessary. He writes:
Kutschera, the editor, offers one answer: Many people, in fact, do not know the scope of Saddam's crimes, and many others don't know many details about them. Perhaps more important, Kutschera and his collaborators know that they live in a world in which some items are pushed out of people's moral imaginations, and off their moral agendas, with remarkable ease and speed. Specifically, they know they live in a world in which once the Holocaust has been addressed, moral blind spots about mass murder and abuse proliferate impressively.(Thanks: SdeW.)
The pattern is plain: Over and over again, perceived abuses by Western societies - colonialism, the Vietnam war - are revisited in conversation and thought until they are part of our mental furniture. What happens to the crimes of others is very different. Some of them get sucked down the memory hole. Those of us of a certain age remember that the very independent Idi Amin was far worse, but it is Joseph Mobutu - portrayed as a U.S. ally, if not puppet - who has emerged as the durable symbol of abusive African rule.
More often, crimes committed by non-Westerners are blamed on Westerners. As in: America provided Saddam with chemical weapons; Palestinians mimic Israeli brutality; the Khmer Rouge was driven to madness by U.S. bombing. It was Belgian colonialism that taught Rwandan Hutu génocidaires to be tribal and to kill. And the CIA created Osama bin Laden, while U.S. excesses created his followers.
The soft bigotry here is not of low expectations but of no expectations. This suggests that only Westerners have moral agency. To deny a person the capacity to initiate evil is to deny them the capacity to initiate good, or anything in between.
The result is a vicious cycle in which many educated people engage easily with the storylines they already know, and are unsure what to do with the unfamiliar. Most infamously, members of the world's intellectual and journalistic classes have a habit of not denying Communist atrocities but of knowing almost no details about them and never volunteering the topic.
Let's not even bother with the Great Terror and the Ukrainian famine and, instead, go straight to something recent. Ask yourself: When was the last time you saw, read, or heard anyone discussing the estimated one million civilians killed during the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan during 1979-89? People old enough to have lived through that aren't reminded of it. And younger ones have almost no opportunity to learn about it. Such acts of forgetting are why the Black Book of Communism was still needed so many years after Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and why the tales it told were greeted as foreign all over again.
Iraq is not an exception. Intellectual imaginations immediately grasp the importance of the widely covered website "Iraq Body Count," tabulating Iraqi civilians reported killed after the 2003 overthrow of Saddam. But the researcher-activists who created that site don't run a similar count of Iraqis killed by Saddam before April 2003, or one of bodies as they emerge from his mass graves, and they can't even be bothered to link to neglected websites publicizing those graves, such as afhr.org and the austerely powerful (and graphic) massgraves.info.
In the same spirit, institutions as diverse as Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, the University of California at Santa Cruz, Bryn Mawr and Amherst colleges, and Florida State University have already offered courses that discuss Abu Ghraib as a place where U.S. soldiers committed abuses, not as a place in which Saddam's secret police tortured thousands to death.
It's no coincidence that the Black Book of Saddam Hussein has been received with what Kutschera describes as a "chill" by the French commentariat, has been ignored by the reviewers in the leading French newspapers - Le Monde, Le Figaro, and Libération - and was reviewed only snidely by Le Monde Diplomatique.
This is the real virtue of the Black Book and other volumes like it. They offer the details that most news media and college classes won't. They memorialize those who otherwise might be forgotten. And they are the raw materials for an alternative storyline, one that takes all peoples seriously enough to say that they are moral agents, both for evil and for good.