This editorial appeared in The Miami Herald.
When Muntadhar al Zeidi hurled his shoes at President George W. Bush during a Baghdad news conference, he could hardly have been thinking that he was helping the U.S. president make a point about Iraqi democracy. Yet that's exactly what he accomplished. In today's Iraq, a dissenter can insult a visiting head of state in front of the whole nation and live to tell the story.
That's a far cry from what used to happen in the terrifying era of Saddam Hussein. Fear ruled the lives of most Iraqis. A shoe-hurling insult would have resulted in a horrible punishment, probably culminating in a painful death preceded by barbarous torture, not to mention the harm visited on the culprit's family. Of course, it wouldn't have happened in the first place, such was the level of fear that Hussein inspired.
In a sense, the incident that forced Mr. Bush to duck encapsulates the debate surrounding the war in Iraq. Today, Iraqis enjoy a measure of political and civil liberty they have never before experienced. But Mr. Zeidi's ire reflects that this freedom has come at a very great cost indeed. The "normal" life Iraqis once knew has been replaced by the chaos of war, kidnapping and roadside bombs.
Was it a fair bargain? Clearly, Mr. Zeidi and those clamoring for his release from jail don't think so. Neither do all the refugees forced to flee Iraq, nor the families of tens of thousands of civilians who have died since the 2003 invasion.
Still, a rudimentary democracy is being born. Mr. Zeidi's anger is understandable as political theater, but it has no place in a country that aspires to real democracy. The jury is still out on whether Iraqis will be able to take advantage of this moment in history.