Many people the world over have been rightly appalled by the most recent atrocity of the Islamic State, which this time involved the destruction of sites of historical significance; a deviation from their usual modus operandi of increasingly savage and creative murders. It is worth understanding exactly what makes this crime despicable enough to be condemned alongside human suffering.
Many people, I have noticed, hedge their outrage at the bulldozing of ancient Assyrian artefacts with caveats such as “it might seem strange to be upset by this when so many people are being killed but…” In the face of such a pornographically murderous track record as that accumulated by IS this is certainly understandable. Monuments of stone and ancient artworks are not conscious; they cannot suffer pain or terror at their imminent death, as so many of IS’s innocent victims have. Yet, still, there is something sublimely shocking about it. If we are to acknowledge this to its full extent we should first recognise that it comes from a different place to our natural disgust towards cruelty or our empathy for those in pain – in a way it is a more complex and uniquely human emotion. Even animals can experience empathy, disgust at cruelty, or solidarity with their fellow creatures, but they are unable to appreciate inanimate beauty and the tragedy inherent in the loss of it.
It is worth reflecting on the cultures that have attempted this before and, thus, where this action tends to ultimately lead. The Taliban, prior to their more explicitly terroristic involvement with Al Qaeda, famously shelled the beautiful Buddhist monuments of Bamiyan and, then too, the world sat back and watched them do it. It is interesting to imagine what a different course history might have taken if we had stepped in to prevent them from that act of desecration and made a stand to protect our common property (possibly even adding “and we know what you are up to”).
Other movements such as Nazism have attempted to take control of history by selectively destroying aspects of it and appropriating others. They famously incorporated aspects of Catholicism into the (rather unsuccessful) “Nazi Church” and developed a bizarre alternative history and cosmology based on ancient Nordic blood-myths and anti-Jewish conspiracy theories.
But this is not simply about destroying religiously incompatible idols or creating a supportive historical narrative, but wiping the slate of history clean. The Khmer Rouge of Cambodia, an ostensibly secular movement (leader worship and bizarre mystical undertones notwithstanding) are perhaps the most well-known example of a movement that wanted to end history, to start again from “year zero” and raise a generation of devoted fanatics who have and never would know any different. IS are attempting the same thing at this very moment. The teaching of philosophy, world history, sport, fiction (with the exception of the Quran, which they take as literal truth), science and art all of which are considered incompatible with their ideology are forbidden. Children are instead being taught only two things: literalist Islam and the violent means to enforce it. If they succeed they will have raised a generation who know nothing else. It is hard to imagine such a life or how these people could possibly be reasoned with if they come of age in those circumstances. Whereas the Khmer Rouge wanted to create a new historical narrative, IS are concerned only with the end game, their movement is obsessively eschatological and most concerned with, not just retroactively destroying history, but bringing on the apocalypse.
That being said, no sensible person really believes they will achieve this, so our revulsion at their destructive acts speaks to something deeper.
The Assyrian civilisation, the remains of which IS are in the process of grinding into rubble, is one of the oldest in recorded history, indeed it is itself responsible, at least in large part, for initiating the historical record by inventing and spreading the written word (at least one of the earliest examples as far as we know and the first to be widely distributed through trade). Ironically, when we see an ancient Assyrian frieze documenting an event contemporary to the time it was created, we are looking not only at history but at our earliest desire to document it, our first realisation that we, as a species, have and are products of our history. While our history (usually in the more short-term) often divides us, in the broader sense, the birds-eye-view of “deep time” binds us together as a species. We are not simply individual tribes living only for the present moment, clashing, allying, interbreeding and going our separate ways as the moment dictates, we are the human race. That sense of history and the artefacts that inspire it are the common heritage and property of all mankind. Every passing moment of our history has led us to where we are now and every passing moment from now is a chance to change it. It is that understanding which lies at the core of the Enlightenment and of human humility and solidarity that IS wish to destroy and why, as civilised people, we find such desecration so devastating and repulsive.
Saturn Devouring His Son (1819-1823) by Francisco Goya. Source: Wiki Art