Introspection is not the purpose of this occasional column, but a moment of it seems appropriate in the wake of the election recently held in Iraq. That election might have been a blood-soaked fiasco, aborted by insurgent forces. It might have been a nonevent, with sparse turnout and sullen voters. It might have been well attended but still inexpressive and mysterious, a merely formal exercise whose meaning was hard to interpret. But none of these eventualities–which pretty much represented the range of my expectations–transpired. Instead, the election was a full-throated, long-suppressed cry by millions of oppressed and abused people against tyranny, torture, terrorism, penury, anarchy and war, and an ardent appeal for freedom, peace, order and ordinary life.
I had not thought that, two years after Saddam Hussein’s fall, such a powerful current of longing could well up. I did not believe that an election with 7,000 candidates, most of whose identities were secret, could inspire such enthusiasm. Above all, I did not believe that so many Iraqis, whose dislike of the American occupation is wide and deep, would seize an opportunity provided in part by that same occupation to express their desires with such clarity and force. On the contrary, I thought that national pride–one of the most powerful forces of modern times–would prevent it.
But express themselves the voters did, with compressed, elemental eloquence. What impressed was not turnout, which remains unknown, especially in Sunni areas; it was the demeanor and comments of those who did vote. A woman in Baghdad explained to the New York Times, “A hundred names on the ballot are better than one, because it means that we are free.” Another woman in Baghdad said to the Washington Post, “We were sad for a long time and this is the first happiness we ever had.” The election was a direct, powerfully expressed and articulated rebuke to car-bombers, kidnappers and beheaders. “Enough fear,” a woman in Baghdad said. “Let us breathe the air of freedom.” A man in Najaf whose father had been killed by Saddam’s regime said, “My father helped bring this election today.” People brought their children. A man accompanied by his son said, “I expect he will be voting many times.” Another man said, “How much those terrorists hate the Iraqis. They were trying to kill us just because we want to do the thing we like to do.” Many voters spoke with deep emotion. A man told the Los Angeles Times, “I kissed the ballot box.” Another said to the New York Times, “People have been thirsting for these elections, as if it was a wedding.”
There was, I confess, a momentary temptation for someone like me, who has opposed the war from the start and believed it would lead to nothing good, simply to scant the importance of the event, or react to it defensively, or speed past it on the way back to an uneasy confirmation of previous views. But the impulse passed. After all, hadn’t I been irked that the war’s promoters, including the President, had refused to admit a mistake when they had not found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, when they had failed to foresee the insurgency that soon broke out after Baghdad was taken, when American forces, encouraged by memos penned at the top levels of the Administration, had committed widespread acts of torture? More important, when masses of ordinary people act with courage to express deep and positive longings, shouldn’t one give them their due? But most important of all, wasn’t full acknowledgment of the magnitude of the event necessary for any real understanding of what might happen next in Iraq?