Freedom’s Groupies: Optimism in the Land of Hammurabi

Robert Alt

March 31, 2004

Baghdad, Iraq—Yesterday Ambassador Paul Bremer addressed approximately 70 students of Al-Nahrain Law School in Northern Baghdad to discuss the appointment of Inspectors General to root out corruption in Iraq’s ministries.

Making the announcement, Ambassador Bremer stood in front of a bronze fris of Hammurabi—the sixth king of the First Dynasty of Babylon known for codifying the ancient law in about 2250 B.C.—who was depicted receiving the code of laws from the sun god. Bremer pointed to the codification of Hammurabi’s law as evidence that “people have always been tempted to lie, cheat, and steal.” He then pointed to the prime example of corruption for Iraqis: the prior regime. Bremer stated that “[d]uring Saddam’s regime Iraqi children attended dilapidated schools and sought treatment in clinics with no medicine. Meanwhile, Saddam Hussein, his family and friends indulged in a Pharonic excess of palaces and collections of expensive cars.”

The appointment of the Inspectors General is an important step in a country where the status quo had been rule by cronyism and bribes. To give but one blatant example of the severity of the corruption, one judge was known to form a line outside his chambers, where individuals accused of crimes as serious as murder would stand with cash openly in hand, and then walk out of his chambers freed of both their cash and their criminal charges. Bremer rightly noted that for the people to have confidence in the new government, the corruption of the past cannot continue.

The announcement itself was important, however the most memorable feature of the event was the crowd of law students. Al-Nahrain is the elite law school in Baghdad, but it sustained serious damage in the war. The books in the library burned, and some of the key facilities are seriously damaged (undoubtedly due to Saddam’s propensity for putting weapons in schools—a despicable practice which I have witnessed first hand). Yet the students I spoke with were full of optimism. When asked about the presentation, one student exclaimed, “[w]e are happy when Mr. Bremer says that justice will be served.” Others expressed general pleasure at having the opportunity to have a meeting with Bremer.

As I was chatting with the students, I mentioned that I am a lawyer back in the United States, and that I had studied Hammurabi in law school. At this they asked, “You know Hammurabi? What did you study Hammurabi for?” I explained that I studied sections of his code concerning torts and damages, and that there are a number of similarities between Hammurabi and English law. To provide an example, I converted, or “stole” one of their notebooks to show how the law provides for different damages for different kinds of bad or unintentional acts.

Some new students arrived, and asked more about my study of law in the United States. At this point, I mentioned that I taught constitutional law back in the United States. “You are a professor,” the students gasped. This began what can only be described as my rock star moment. News quickly spread that there was an American constitutional law professor in the building. Students surrounded me seeking my email and mailing address back in the States, asking me to sign their notebooks, and requesting to have their pictures taken with me. If only they knew that my students in America considered fleeing to Baghdad to avoid my midterm! The experience was surreal.

The students had many questions about public opinion back in America. What did America think of Saddam? What do they think about George Bush? What do they think about Iraq? They also offered their own very strong opinions, spontaneously declaring, “we love America!” And when the subject of Saddam came up, a student from the school once bearing his name responded with a single word: “monster.”

Despite the damage to the buildings, they were quite proud of their school, and showed me around the campus. They pointed where the library once stood, now a burned out shell, and took me to a classroom which, while functional, had no air conditioning. All the while, they continued peppering me with questions about what the practice of law is like in the United States.

The students’ emphatic response to the Coalition effort took me by surprise. Because this is an elite institution which takes a privileged few, I anticipated a greater degree of allegiance to the old regime, and less acceptance toward America in general. But the response was just the opposite. Indeed, I sincerely doubt that there is a single elite law school in America where you could find such enthusiasm for the Coalition effort in Iraq. This is illustrative of the great disconnect between Iraqi and elite American opinion. Here, one of the students referred to George Bush’s efforts as the “emancipation” of Iraq, while in America, the self-doubting students of elite law schools would far more likely dub the effort “oppression.”

Of course, this negative response is not limited to the law schools, but is often the impression given by a media which too often mistakes the news page for the obituary page. Do not misunderstand me: it is important to report about the injuries and deaths of Coalition forces in Iraq, whose service and courage is laudable. But it is also important to explain why these individuals served and died. The Iraqi student at Al-Nahrain who spoke of emancipation understood this well. As the Iraqi law students taught this American professor, it is well past time for the world beyond Iraq’s borders to look beyond the extreme response of a terrorist minority in Iraq, and instead recognize the positive response of the majority of Iraqis.

Robert Alt is a Fellow in Legal and International Affairs at the John M. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University. He is currently reporting from Iraq. He posts daily reports on the Ashbrook Center’s web log, No Left Turns.