Terrible and beautiful things

I don’t know if you have been following  the news in the Middle East, I have.

I have seen people in the throes of religious fervor destroying the I own countries and people’s from the inside out. Culling those who hold different beliefs, like cutting green mold from a block of cheese. The university students in Kenya massacred for their Christian beliefs. Young females students stolen from their schools, a place of safety, by radical Islamists. If the parents are lucky, their girls will return to them.

These events are not limited to the Middle East. We are seeing radicalized individuals across the globe sowing the seeds of chaos and murder. All for the goal of remaking the world in their own image.

This kind of behavior is not new. Mankind has been using force to spread their own personalized ideology since Cain slew Able, dividing the children of Adam and Eve.

I am a proponent of open and respectful discussion. These cultural differences do not have to be a thing of horror. Instead, they can be a way to break through mental obstructions built from fear of the unknown.

What alarms me is the systematic destruction of monuments, object d’art, and locales a of cultural significance that are thousands of years old. Things that can be sold on the black market for a profit are disappearing into the hands of private collectors. Statuary and monuments are being deface or blow-up in frenetic zeal to destroy all ‘idols’.

Scholars from around the world are trying to preserve and protect  what they can in an active wars zone. Check out the T160K – Timbuktu Libraries in Exile. They caught my attention when an NPR piece ran about how librarians were able to smuggle out of Mali close to 160,000 rare and historically significant documents and books. This organization is work to digitize all the documents in an effort to help preserve the cultures in Africa.

The wanton destruction of monuments, art, and libraries is wrong. Without an accurate understanding of the past (good and bad) we will make the same mistakes over and over.

Our world is filled with cultures that are systematically being destroyed by groups that want to rewrite histories to their vision. A good example is the city of Aleppo in Syria – a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It withstood four millenia under the successive rule of the Hittites, Assyrians, Arabs, Mongols, Mamelukes and Ottomans (to name a few). The city has not survived the current century.

Eric Gibson of the Wall Street Journal said in a cultural editorial on March 2, 2015:

The London Convention prohibits “plunder of public or private property, wanton destruction of cities, towns or villages, or devastation not justified by military necessity.” Updating it now to mention cultural heritage specifically would simply make an implied protection explicit, bringing existing intentions in line with current realities.

More broadly, we need to recognize just what is at stake here. Cultural heritage is more than pretty objects lined up in a museum or tourist sites to visit on a vacation. It is at once a record of our shared past, a way of understanding ourselves and each other, and the product of the best in us. Nothing is more important than a human life, but the destruction of art and artifacts represents an attack on history, identity and civilization. Before the bar of our collective conscience, that should count for something too.

While the loss of landmarks and art is tragic, the loss of life is unconscionable. We have countries that are now experiencing loss of memory and education in huge swaths of population due to war.

We are writers – documentors of events and imagination. Our job is to face these beautiful and terrible things without fear and bear witness, so that future generations can remember these things and not make the same mistakes.


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