In the beginning of the dream it was as if I was watching a movie. It seemed to be a crime drama sort of thing, taking place in a run-down littered urban neighborhood. Colors had the washed-out look that you see in a lot of films from the ‘70s. A big car of a steely gray color pulled up beside a smaller car of some vague color that was sitting by the curb or at a stop sign. Two men jumped out of the gray car, dragged a man from the other car, and began beating him. All three of them looked something like movie gangsters, the two new arrivals in coats and ties and the victim in a shabby and dingy white shirt. He sank to the ground almost immediately beneath their fists and kicks.
Almost immediately a police car arrived. I felt relieved that help had appeared so quickly. At the same time a crowd had begun to gather. A man wearing a suit and sunglasses jumped out of the police car and began berating the two men who were doing the beating, yelling at them, pulling them away and shoving them aside. The beaten man got up and eased off into the crowd. The crowd, glad at first to see the police arrive, grew quiet when they understood that the man in the suit was saying “That’s not the right guy.” It became clear that the two assailants were not criminals being stopped in mid-crime by the policeman in the suit, but rather his subordinates, and that beating people was their job; the only problem was that they had muffed this assignment.
At about this point the dream changed somehow so that it was no longer something I was watching as if on a screen. I became part of the crowd, which aside from me and a few others was mostly young people. We grew first angry and then frightened as it dawned on us that the man in the suit was not a thug posing as a policeman but in fact an actual thug. Somehow it became clear to me and to the whole crowd that there was no distinction between the two. The man had all the apparatus of the law at his disposal but there was no law, only his whim, or perhaps the whim of someone from whom he took orders.
The crowd began to murmur against him. He turned to us. His cold face seemed a little familiar to me, no doubt in my dream based on some movie villain. He glared at us, smiled a little, reached into the crowd, and dragged from among us a young woman. She was very pretty, with long thick hair of a dark auburn color, and she wore a pale blue suit of an old style, something from the ‘40s or ‘50s.
He held her by the upper arm and with his other hand he pulled a pistol from his coat, a small semi-automatic, not really a policeman’s gun but one that might be used by an assassin who expected to have his victim at close range. He said “This is Amy. She went to Radcliffe. She’s going to study nuclear physics.” And he seemed to find this last very funny; I think he said it a second time. It was the mirth with which we watch Harpo Marx make a fool of a pompous official, the pleasure of seeing pretensions deflated: it amused him to see the disparity between her expectations—nuclear physics, indeed!—and her real situation.
Then he began to walk along the sidewalk, dragging the girl, Amy, along with him—and by this time it seemed to all the rest of us that she was someone we knew—and haranguing the crowd. None of his words seemed intelligible yet we knew that their general import was that we needed to understand that he was in charge. We followed along but none of us had the courage to challenge him Then he stopped abruptly, held Amy, who was planning to study nuclear physics, at arm’s length, and shot her in the temple. Blood and bone fragments sprayed from the other side of her head, her body crumpled, and he let her drop.
After this there was a gap, a sense that time had lurched forward a few minutes. The man in the suit was gone, the dead girl had been dragged away (somehow I knew she had been dragged, with a deliberate indifference, to emphasize her inconsequence). Most of the crowd was gone but a few of us remained, filled with fear and an enormous heartbreak. I was standing on the sidewalk looking down. Dark blood, almost the color of the girl’s hair, ran from a pool on the sidewalk into the sad little strip of struggling grass, cigarette butts, and litter like the ones that lie between the sidewalks and the streets of so many cities.
I woke up in the pure anguish of dreams. As I tried to free my mind from it I comforted myself, as one does, with the knowledge that the world does not really operate as it did in my nightmare. Then I realized with renewed horror that there are societies that really do operate that way, where the will of evil and powerful men is the only law.>
Such a society was Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Such things could and did happen there, and far worse things: in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq young women could be taken from the streets and then raped and tortured before being shot. And there was no law to which appeal for help or redress could be made. The thugs and the police were one and the same.
As we consider with dismay the abuses of Iraqi prisoners by Americans, we need to keep some perspective. In the rule of abstract law which we are now trying to help the Iraqi people achieve, such things are defects and aberrations which provoke shock and correction, not the normal mode of governing. Our sins do not constitute a moral equivalence between the rule of law and the rule of a tyrant’s will.
History will judge, perhaps inconclusively for some time yet, whether our conquest of the Hussein regime in Iraq was right or prudent. But no sound moral judgment of our actions can be made without giving serious weight to the evil that was being done, and it has often seemed to me that opponents of the war fail to do that. What we are attempting is to institute a new order which is not that of my nightmare. This effort deserves to succeed. And if we give up now it will certainly fail.