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Culture And Society in Voice for Reason
Culture & SocietyMore

The Real Museum Looters

by Keith Lockitch | June 03, 2003

Initial reports of the looting of the Iraqi National Museum sparked a frenzy of outrage. Denied their desert quagmire, their civilian massacres, their oil-fire eco-disaster, and their inflamed “Arab street,” leftists all but leaped at the opportunity to denounce our armed forces–with some even urging that our soldiers be prosecuted for war crimes for their alleged failure to prevent the looting.

It turns out, though, that our troops were not standing “idly by” but were being fired at from the museum complex. And the number of missing artifacts–initially assumed to be in the thousands–is now thought to be closer to a few dozen. Most significant, however, is the evidence that the looting was an inside job, orchestrated by museum staffers. The most valuable artifacts were taken from locked vaults by thieves who had both the keys and the knowledge of which pieces were most important.

If this is true, then there is a striking–and deeply ironic–similarity between the looting of the Iraqi National Museum and the equally brazen vandalism of American museum holdings–committed eagerly by their curators in full compliance with federal law.

Since the early 1990s, American museums have been under federal mandate to repatriate Native American remains and artifacts to their closest descendents. Collections of enormous scientific value have been decimated and the re-burial of many of these items has eradicated any possibility of further study.

One re-interred collection, for example, from Harvard’s Peabody Museum, consisted of nearly 2,000 skeletal remains from the Pecos tribe, which flourished in New Mexico between 1300 and A.D. 1600. Large enough to be statistically significant, the collection was studied extensively by anthropologists and medical researchers. It yielded invaluable information on conditions ranging from osteoporosis to head injuries and dental cavities. But in 1999 this scientific gold mine was destroyed when Harvard willingly returned the bones to New Mexico for reburial.

Or consider Kennewick Man, a 9000-year-old skeleton found in Washington State in 1996. One of the oldest individuals to have been found in North America, it generated great excitement among anthropologists eager to study the remains. Local Indian tribes, however, declared Kennewick Man an “ancestor” and claimed his spirit cannot “rest peacefully” until he is re-interred. Scientific access has been forbidden while the case is tied up court. Meanwhile, the bones were stored improperly and exposed to damage from moisture and possible contamination with modern DNA. Even worse, the native groups were secretly permitted ceremonial access to the bones. They performed rituals involving the burning of sage and cedar, further tainting the remains with impurities and possibly distorting future scientific study.

How is it possible that artifacts of such enormous scientific value could be routinely destroyed by the very people entrusted with their protection–and with an air of moral righteousness? The answer is the influence of the doctrine of “multiculturalism,” which claims to value all cultures equally and demands our deference for all beliefs and practices, no matter how backward or destructive.

But it is impossible to uphold the values of all cultures at once if those values contradict one another. You can’t both study the bones and rebury them, too. To bury the bones and prevent their study is to reject science in favor of superstition. It is to abandon the rational study of the past–and the pursuit of knowledge and progress–to stagnant beliefs and primitive rituals. This reveals the true essence of multiculturalism: not the veneration of “diversity” but the denigration of Western Civilization, the culture of science and reason.

This explains the left’s hysterical outrage against the loss of a few dozen artifacts in Iraq, from some of the same people who abet the destruction of artifacts at home. It was just another excuse to denounce the West.

Ancient artifacts–whether Mesopotamian or North American–are not valuable as the crude leftovers of the past. They are valuable as objects of rational study, to help us understand mankind’s origins and provide guidance for his future. The Code of Hammurabi, for example, is not valuable merely as cuneiform scratchings on ancient clay tablets. Its value derives from its role in the formation of the concept of law, which reached its culmination in the U.S. Constitution. But the multiculturalists want to tear down this living legacy of Western Civilization, for the sake of the dead superstitions left over from man’s primitive beginnings.

This is an assault on Western ideas and values that makes the Iraqi museum looting seem innocent by comparison.

About The Author

Keith Lockitch

Vice President of Education and Senior Fellow, Ayn Rand Institute