Suppose rioters were wrecking an American city, looting its hospitals and destroying one of the greatest museums in the world.And imagine if, as this happened, one of the nation’s most prominent liberal excused the violence by saying, “Stuff happens,” and then, when pressed, put a happy face on the looting by saying, “It’s untidy. And freedom’s untidy. And free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes.”

Would it take even 10 minutes for conservatives in Congress and the media to call for the head of the liberal official? How loudly would Rush Limbaugh condemn her irresponsibility? How many times would Sean Hannity blame her for the continued violence? Would Bill O’Reilly demand that the offending official appear to defend herself on Fox TV? Would House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, propose a congressional investigation, removal of the liberal leader, perhaps even criminal prosecution?

No one who has witnessed the faux patriotic policing of the discourse in recent weeks by America’s conservative political and media elites could possibly doubt that such a response to rioting would send the yammering yahoos of the right into a frenzy of finger-pointing.

Yet when rioters were tearing up the U.S.-controlled city of Baghdad last week, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld responded by saying, “Stuff happens.” Then, echoing statements of other Bush administration apparatchiks, Rumsfeld described the looting of the city as an “untidy” display of freedom. In response to questions about the first signs of chaos in the streets of Baghdad, the Secretary of Defense told Americans that they were seeing “a spontaneous outburst of the oppressed Iraqi people…”

On the day that Rumsfeld was declaring on live television that “free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes,” rioters looted the Yarmouk Hospital, carting away not just beds, sheets and medicines but toilets and the ultrasound scanners. They ransacked the ministries of education, agriculture, planning, trade industry and information; and stripped the 10-story Foreign Ministry building down to its carpets. Then they carried the carpets out to waiting trucks. They emptied the shops on main retail streets. And they took — or destroyed — 170,000 items from Iraq’s National Museum, which had housed a priceless collection of masterpieces and memorabilia dating back across human history from the time of the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Sumarians, the Medes, the Greeks and the Persians.

Marble carvings, stone tablets, clay pots and tablets containing some of the earliest known examples of writing were destroyed or stolen. The pillaging of the Baghdad museum represented far more than an Iraqi loss. John Russell, an archeologist at the Massachusetts College of Art, described the destruction as a blow to “the world’s human history.” Noting that the museum’s collection included some of the earliest examples of mathematics and some of the first legal codes ever written, the British Museum’s Dominique Collon described the damage in Baghdad as “truly a world heritage loss.”

Items that survived 7,000 years of human history were lost last week in a city controlled by forces under the direction of Donald Rumsfeld. Yet Rumsfeld refused to take any responsibility. “We didn’t allow it,” he said. “It happened.”

But did it have to happen?

Thousands of the finest soldiers in the world were in and around Baghdad. They could have protected government buildings, hospitals and the world’s great archeological and historical treasures. (U.S. Defense Department officials had, months ago, promised top archaeologists from around the world that such protection would be provided at the museum.) And everyone agrees they would have had little trouble preventing the looting of key buildings. “The Americans were supposed to protect the museum. If they had just one tank and two soldiers nothing like this would have happened,” said Nabhal Amin, the museum’s deputy director.

That U.S. troops, many of whom were within blocks of the museum, were not given orders to protect is stunning to the world’s great archeologists. “The Baghdad museum is the equivalent of the Cairo Museum,” said University of Chicago professor McGuire Gibson. “It would be like having American soldiers 200 feet outside the Cairo museum watching people carry away treasures from King Tut’s tomb or carting away mummies.”

But the troops were assigned to other tasks: such as pulling down a statue of Saddam Hussein for the TV cameras and defending the building that houses the Iraqi Ministry of, you guessed it, Oil. (A March 25 release from the Marines described securing Iraq’s oil producing regions as “one of the first objectives of Operation Iraqi Freedom,” and Rumsfeld has acknowledged at press conferences that securing oil wells was a top priority for the military — inspiring a headline in the satirical newspaper The Onion that read: “137 More Oil Wells Liberated for Democracy.”)While the Ministry of Oil was protected, the National Museum was left to the looters.

When U.S. and allied troops took charge of the great cities of Europe during World War II, they proudly defended museums and other cultural institutions. They could have done the same in Baghdad. And they would have, had a signal come from the Pentagon.But the boss at the Pentagon, Donald Rumsfeld, who had promised to teach the Iraqi people how to live in freedom, was too busy explaining that rioting and looting are what free people are free to do.