Last week, I learned there was a children's prison in Baghdad where they locked up the kids of parents deemed disloyal to the regime.
I guess I shouldn't have been surprised. As more and more information emerges about Saddam Hussein's Iraq, we're learning how awful it really was. Still, I was stunned. What kind of regime locks up and tortures children?
In its scale and sadism, the regime's brutality went way beyond the cruelty of your average police state. It lasted for 20 years. Saddam's rule of terror ought to have sparked international outrage years ago. But it never did. Why not?
The standard answer is, the world didn't really know how bad it was. Yet these atrocities were no secret. They were known to anyone familiar with the regime, including Western governments, the United Nations, weapons inspectors and, yes, human-rights organizations. Yet all these institutions had other interests that apparently outweighed their concerns about the imprisonment and torture of children.
Some of the major media knew, too. In a stunning piece called The News We Kept to Ourselves, published last Friday in The New York Times, CNN news chief Eason Jordan reveals that the network never did come clean on everything it knew about Iraq. It never told its viewers that local CNN employees were abducted and tortured. It never passed along what Mr. Jordan learned on some of the 13 trips he made to Baghdad to schmooze with the regime in exchange for reporters' visas. On one trip, Saddam's son Uday told him he planned to kill his two brothers-in-law (he did). On other trips, Iraqi officials told Mr. Jordan Saddam was a maniac who had to be removed.
"I felt awful having these stories bottled up inside me," he confessed. But he says CNN had to keep quiet in order to protect its employees.
The way others see it, CNN had to keep quiet in order to protect its access. In their view, CNN soft-pedalled the horrors of the regime so it could keep broadcasting from Iraq. In this, it was not alone. That's the usual quid pro quo for reporting on dictators, and Iraq was unusually vigilant in the way it kept tabs on the media. Every foreign journalist was tended by an official minder; if the regime didn't like their stories, they were kicked out.
Even Peter Arnett (who ended his network career by appearing on Iraqi TV) acknowledged the quid pro quo. "You go in and they control what you do," he told The New Republic's Franklin Foer last fall. "So you have no option other than to report the opinion of the government of Iraq." Perhaps that's why we got so much straight-faced coverage of massive anti-U.S. rallies.
Naturally, it was hard for journalists to get at the truth. But there were other ways. The world is full of exiles who fled Saddam's horrors, and bear his scars. Yet no one was very interested in what they had to say. Even outfits such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, which did document some of Saddam's horrors, seemed more interested in scourging the West over sanctions than exposing the regime's abuses.
The reason is, they didn't want their evidence to be used for an end they opposed, such as regime change.
Former weapons inspector Scott Ritter illustrates this attitude. He knew about the children's prison because his team inspected it in 1998. He once said it was the most horrific thing he had seen. "Probably 200 kids from toddlers to 12-year-olds. The stench was unreal - urine, feces, vomit, sweat. The kids were howling and dying of thirst. We threw water in there, but the Iraqis probably took the water out afterwards."
But now that Mr. Ritter has become a peace crusader, he doesn't want to talk about it. "Actually, I'm not going to describe what I saw there," he told Time this week, "because what I saw was so horrible that it can be used by those who would want to promote war with Iraq, and right now I'm waging peace."
Many people in the peace movement excuse these evasions by claiming we knew all these things all along. But I had no idea. Did you? The human-rights violations and widespread oppression of Saddam's regime are among the most underreported stories of the past decade.
As for the other parties in the know, there are the usual dreary reasons. They had their commercial interests to consider. After Saddam gassed the Kurds, for example, the U.S. decided to overlook his bad manners to protect its lucrative Midwestern agricultural exports (it's all about wheat). He made France and Germany rich, too. They were Iraq's biggest suppliers of munitions, equipment and chemical agents useful for making poison gas. As for the UN, it had no interest in Saddam's abuses because too many of its members supported him.
All of them, every one, heard the children's screams. But they kept it to themselves.