Raging Bull

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"This is unlike any other art class I've been exposed to. Art and politics, they should be synonymous," said Tamayo.

The students said that their alternative reading gave them a perspective lacking in the corporate Times and Post. They pointed out that the man identified as a radical Muslim cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, led an army not because he was an insurgent but because his newspaper was shut down by the army.

My head was spinning slightly. New Times should muzzle itself when discussing art censorship, yes. Armed insurrection is the logical response to press censorship in Iraq, yes indeed.

The students' heads were spinning, too, with the inherent drama of . . . making pictures.

"It's daring," said Novakoff. "Because of the times, I know you can't speak your mind. The FBI will investigate you if you say something anti-Bush. . . . Not having access to media outlets, not having a loud microphone to speak out. . . . Most art comes out of desperate situations."

Asked about Bush's attempt to introduce democracy into Islamic countries, the students were skeptical.

"You can't hide that hospitals and schools were bombed," said Novakoff before adding, "Is it really about democracy? How many countries are democratic? . . . Once you understand our safety is not threatened, now it's a matter of supposed good faith."

"Why didn't the U.S. help Tibet against China?" asked Tamayo, to underscore the selectivity of Bush's democratic impulse.

"I don't know," she concluded. "If they liked Saddam, it's none of our business."

It is a curious exercise in reading and learning that leaves a student under the impression that Saddam Hussein was a popular figure.

The students raised the genocide in the Sudan as something the American government ought to address.

It seemed like a good moment to discuss the genocide in Iraq. But it turned out that this topic was not covered in their alternative reading list. If it was discussed at all in class, these particular students missed it.

In any case, Tamayo dismissed the killing.

"That's a wasp way of thinking," said Tamayo. "If this happened in Canada, we wouldn't intervene. [The Iraqis] are not like us."

She maintained that we felt we knew better than the Iraqis what was best for them because they are not white and therefore need our help.

As an example of how he proposed to confront the evil of genocide, Professor Leaños suggested that if one left things alone, things would work out. As an example, he offered Spain's Franco, who, once his dictatorship was over, was replaced by enlightenment.

It is not surprising that Saddam Hussein's killing fields are not on the radar screens of the anti-war activists at ASU. The genocide in Iraq has been nearly invisible on the campaign trail and in the press.

One study found that in a 10-week period earlier this year, the New York Times mentioned weapons of mass destruction 191 times and mass graves just six.

"By conservative estimates, at least 290,000 people are missing in Iraq, and the answer to their whereabouts likely lies in these graves," according to Peter Boukaert, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch.

The difference between a repugnant dictatorship like Franco's and a genocidal regime like Hussein's begs the question of intervention.

Can you simply wait out genocide as Professor Leaños suggests?

Can you negotiate with genocidal regimes?

A man who grapples with these issues instead of ignoring them was pessimistic about good intentions and benign neglect.

"Diplomatic intervention is not particularly successful," observed Joe Stork, HRW's Washington director for the Middle East. "I'm having a hard time thinking of a single place where diplomatic intervention was successful. You always need troops."

Stork admits that the figure of 290,000 victims is a conservative, prewar estimate that has not been updated by HRW.

"It's possible that the actual number is closer to 400,000, yes," said Stork.

In fact, the United States Agency for International Development identified 270 mass graves. Working with forensic teams form Denmark, Finland, Germany and Sweden, USAID also suggested 400,000 casualties. No one knows precisely.

What is known is that whatever the number is, the genocide in Iraq was one of the worst in the 20th century, with a death count far surpassing anything seen in the Sudan or Bosnia.

Stork explained the difficulty of raising the Iraqi genocide as a topic at the United Nations and as a point of international concern.

"We have been absolutely frustrated," said Stork. "Iraq in the '80s was a beautiful case, a case where diplomatic intervention should have occurred. There wasn't a peep from the international community. In the '90s, Richard Butler, the weapons inspector, was repeatedly invited to speak at the U.N. For years, we and Amnesty International argued for human rights inspectors on the ground in Iraq."

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Michael Lacey
Contact: Michael Lacey