SALT LAKE CITY — When CNN news executive Eason Jordan went public in the New York Times last month with hitherto untold stories of horrendous torture in Iraq, he was doing the world an important service.
His article raised a storm because he'd kept silent about the torture for a dozen years while lobbying the Saddam Hussein government for CNN access and facilities. Mr. Jordan argued that to have told his story earlier would have jeopardized the lives of Iraqis and CNN staff in Baghdad.
I wish he'd told what he knew earlier, but even belatedly, it was important corroboration of the fact that Hussein's regime ranks with Hitler's and Stalin's and Pol Pot's and with those of a bunch of other contemporary tyrants from Bosnia to Rwanda in its cruelty to its own people.
Jordan told of an Iraqi cameraman beaten for a week and subjected to electroshock torture in a secret police basement.
He told of executions and teeth ripped out with pliers. He told of a woman beaten daily for two months while her father was forced to watch. Finally, as the American forces approached, the secret police tore her body apart, leaving it in a plastic bag on her family's doorstep.
As American troops have secured Iraq's cities, frightened citizens have emerged to revisit torture cells where hooks for hanging remain, to dig up graves looking for executed relatives, and to start telling their terrible tales of torture and killing on a scale that is mind-boggling.
Ears were sliced off, particularly of young men who went absent without leave from their military units. Official torturers left behind a trail of maimed victims without tongues, toenails, eyes. Thousands of people are missing and may never be found, even as new mass graves are uncovered, and family members scrabble in individual graves in search of relatives lost and probably executed.
Even if weapons of mass destruction are never found and the connection to Al Qaeda is never established beyond all doubt, putting an end to this despicable regime has been a noble cause.
Now the question is: What are we to do in the aftermath?
Where the torturers can be found, they must be brought to justice. But beyond this immediate task, the story of what Hussein did to his country and people must be pieced together in its entirety, recorded, and preserved as history for successive generations lest they forget.
This is no ghoulish whim. Most of the readers of this column probably live in free societies. Even in countries once not-free - in Africa, Eastern Europe, Asia - democracy is on the march. It is easy in this democratic environment to forget the extent of man's inhumanity to man in backward lands where tyrants still rule.
Last week, Americans celebrated the 2003 Day of Remembrance and the 10th anniversary of the US Holocaust Museum. Many of those who had suffered personally as a result of the Holocaust expressed concern that, for successive generations, apathy or affluence, or simply distance in time from the events, might cloud memories of what the Nazis did to 6 million Jews.
In Iraq's postwar trauma there is, as one New York Times reporter put it, "a great national catharsis, confronting the black heart of Mr. Hussein's rule and proclaiming its depravity for everyone to see."
But the electricity is coming back on, there will be running water, the garbage will get collected, and new construction will begin where mountains of rubble now lie.
Normalcy will return, and in a land whose history stretches back to the beginning of civilization, Hussein's reign of terror will be but a chapter to be forgotten.
It should not be.
There is concern - and properly so - over the loss of Iraq's cultural treasures from the pillaged Iraqi National Museum.
Those treasures, which record the emergence and growth of a great civilization, should be restored and preserved.
Preserved, too, in one of those decadent golden palaces that Hussein built while his people went without, should be the dark story of his time. With the help of the Iraqi people, it should become a permanent museum recording the murders and torture-inflicted anguish that was imposed on his subjects.
In this way, future generations would never forget, and hopefully would never permit a return to such misery.
• John Hughes, a former Monitor editor and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting, served as US assistant secretary of state for public affairs in the Reagan administration and UN assistant secretary-general in 1995.