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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Crimes against history are crimes against humanity

by David Atkins

News like this makes my blood boil:

Islamist insurgents retreating from Timbuktu set fire to a library containing thousands of priceless historic manuscripts, according to the Saharan town's mayor, in an incident he described as a "devastating blow" to world heritage.

Hallé Ousmani Cissé told the Guardian that al-Qaida-allied fighters on Saturday torched two buildings that held the manuscripts, some of which dated back to the 13th century. They also burned down the town hall, the governor's office and an MP's residence, and shot dead a man who was celebrating the arrival of the French military.

French troops and the Malian army reached the gates of Timbuktu on Saturday and secured the town's airport. But they appear to have got there too late to rescue the leather-bound manuscripts that were a unique record of sub-Saharan Africa's rich medieval history. The rebels attacked the airport on Sunday, the mayor said.

"It's true. They have burned the manuscripts," Cissé said in a phone interview from Mali's capital, Bamako. "They also burned down several buildings. There was one guy who was celebrating in the street and they killed him."

He added: "This is terrible news. The manuscripts were a part not only of Mali's heritage but the world's heritage. By destroying them they threaten the world. We have to kill all of the rebels in the north."
There are many on the left who argue that the modern Islamist movement is nothing more than the latest reaction to a combination of Western imperialism and domestic corruption. But that's simply not the case. The ideology that drives these people is criminal on a historic scale.

The people of Afghanistan are a long-suffering lot. They've been conquered, ravaged, reconquered, re-ravaged, and been the victims of savagery and imperialism of all kinds for centuries. But through it all the Bamiyan Buddhas stood tall for a full one thousand five hundred years. The Buddhas continued to stand even during the predations of Genghis Khan. The same Mongols, those most brutal and awful murderers in human history who committed one of the greatest crimes against humanity when they besieged Baghdad, slaughtered its people and destroyed its library such that the Euphrates ran black with ink, still managed to leave the Bamiyan Buddhas intact. They survived the regime of the Persian Saffavids, and remained to overlook Timur's Afghan Empire. They watched in silence as the Brits marched in and out. They survived the survived the Soviet incursion, and the brutal Afghan civil war that followed. All of the imperial conquerors and the subsequent resurgences of local power respected them and their contribution to history. It was understood that imperial powers, religious affiliations and ethnic feuds were ultimately transient. But history...history is permanent. History is larger than the individuals walking the stage. History is not to be tampered with.

But not the Taliban.

Once the Mongols left Baghdad, its treasures were secured in various ways and eventually placed into museums. Baghdad was conquered and reconquered by various forces in the years that followed. But it was not until the United States failed to secure the museums and the religious extremists began their looting that the priceless objects were lost to humanity, probably forever.

And now the latest casualty of this new brand of extremist conservative religious totalitarianism is the library at Timbuktu, which stood for 800 years of war, exploitation and ideological change. Until today.

There are those who will mock me for caring more about dusty old books and statues than about real people. Fine. But generations come and go. People live, die and are largely forgotten. History is forever. All of humanity is the same species, and our species has survived literally countless wars, ethnic cleansings, incursions and imperial aggressions. But once an irreplaceable artifact of history is gone, it's gone forever. Thanks largely to a similarly barbaric cleansing on history on the part of early Christians, the world has lost 107 of Livy's 142 books of Roman history, as well as Aristotle's On Comedy--both losses of enormous consequence. These are crucial pieces of the human experience we will never recover.

There is an unforgettable scene in Raiders of the Last Ark in which Indiana Jones, holding a rocket launcher, threatens the Nazi regiment carrying the Ark of the Covenant. The villainous archaeologist leading the Nazis, Belloq, says to Jones: "All your life has been spent in pursuit of archaeological relics. Inside the Ark are treasures beyond your wildest aspirations. You want to see it opened as well as I. Indiana, we are simply passing through history. This, this *is* history." That reminder was enough to make even Indiana Jones allow himself to be captured, though it meant almost certain death.

Belloq is right. The Nazis, evil as they were, will ultimately have amounted to little more than a footnote in the pages of history. For Jones to have destroyed the Ark in order to save his girlfriend or punish a few Nazis would not just have been shortsighted or contrary to his profession. It would have been an epic crime against humanity. Nothing was worth the destruction of that artifact: not Jones, not Marion, and not that temporary tug of war between Allied and Axis powers.

There is something deeply barbaric about casually, intentionally destroying humanity's heritage. Something terrifying, and something new to this world in the modern era. Something more inherently barbaric than run-of-the-mill murder or even mass murder.

It's a big problem, one that transcends the usual Hegelian dialectic of imperialism and nativism. The loss of the libraries at Timbuktu will resonate across the centuries long after 99.99% of the people alive on this planet are gone and forgotten.