25 May 2015

Monday afternoon rant: is cultural destruction in the 21st century inevitable?

by Marc Masurovsky
 As the world sits by and watches ISIS forces overwhelm the town of Palmyra, shudders go down our collective spines and dread overcomes us as we wonder: what will the fundamentalist warriors of the Daesh do to the archaeological treasures that lie beneath the surface of Palmyra?
"cradle of civilization"

The so-called “cradle of civilization” that we all grew up with has survived assaults for thousands of years, stemming from the rise and fall of previous caliphates, kingdoms and empires vying for influence in the Crescent.

The US Congress is readying to pass a law that enshrines an organic connection between national security and cultural heritage. If the law passes, the US will appoint, at no extra cost to the US treasury, an international coordinator whose job it will be to stay on top of the constant assaults against culture in conflict zones at the hands of “terrorists” and assess how those acts affect American national security and evaluate strategies on how to counter those assaults.  It is undeniable progress that the debate over cultural heritage has led to the explicit necessity to coordinate international efforts to protect cultural sites from destruction wrought by armed maniacs.

The secretary general of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, has shared her outrage about the events unfolding in war-battered Syria and its neighbor, Irak. How bad does it have to get when governments allow themselves to be eaten up alive and watch the legacies of thousands of years of culture vanish before their eyes on their own territories? Worse. What does it say about them? What does it say about us?

What does outrage alone do to stem the tide of destruction?

The German Minister of Culture, Monika Gruetters, expressed her own dismay that Germany had become a turnstile for “conflict antiquities” streaming from areas controlled by ISIS and other zones under the control of armed groups in the Mideast. She went as far as threaten to regulate the trade in antiquities by requiring a complete and detailed provenance for each item entering or exiting Germany, an effort that could lead to placing a chokehold on the illicit trade in “conflict antiquities” at least in Germany.

The trade has responded in kind reiterating its oft-proffered self-serving defense that it can police itself and its members are honorable and would never trade in anything illicit. If not them, who is?

We know by now that the global trade in looted antiquities operates on the same principle as the international narcotics trade. Where there is a demand, there is a ready supply. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist or a CIA hack or privy to the world’s darkest secrets to understand this truism. Why would anyone dig holes in the ground, extract from their matrix priceless artifacts that could help us understand the societies that produced them and for the thieves to go through all sorts of extra-legal gymnastics just to find out that there are no buyers? Most are not trained archaeologists, they seem to be guided by “scientists” and “experts”. They are under contract to perform a task whose aim is to supply looted antiquities in exchange for badly-needed money.

As it turns out, those who acquire looted antiquities are everywhere, the market can barely keep up with the demand from individuals with disposable incomes and deep pockets worldwide, generalists and specialists alike, who want these objects for reasons that we need not go into here. The international art trade and the antiquities market are fueling in part the ISIS strategy to overtake archaeological sites and pillage them, much like Chinese officials, desirous to sate their citizens' apparent addiction to ivory, are commandeering the mass killings of elephants and rhinoceroses in Africa.  Contract killing to fuel addictions with no regard for the environment and no respect for life on earth.  Like all addictions, they spread calamity everywhere. The collateral damage is irreversible.

What will the Chinese do when there are no sources of organic ivory left?

What happens when all the antiquities have been extracted? Will ISIS push into other countries like locusts and harvest more antiquities?

What kind of a world do we live in which tolerates such abuses? It’s as if history does not matter, we don’t matter anymore. Since the Nazi period, humankind has become far less human and has descended into a numbing tolerance and acceptance of the worst abuses that people could dream up against others. Actually, it’s not clear anymore what the word “human” actually means.

It’s as if the past does not count any longer except for the messages and images that ooze through our smartphones or other digital pop culture delivery mechanisms. There will always be pictures of Palmyra to enjoy and glean in quiet admiration and respect for what once was and is no longer. Sigh! So should we weep if the real thing disappears? After all, we always have Instagram.

Cowardice, cynicism and indifference fuel the ISIS strategy. The ISIS bullies on the Middle Eastern block are winning because they are well aware of our own impotence to act, much like the Serbian forces did during the Bosnia crisis of the early 1990s and the orchestrators of the genocide in Rwanda  in spring 1994, to name but a few human rights disasters, no, human, man-made disasters.

Perhaps history does not count anymore. Let’s just watch Palmyra turn into Swiss cheese and explain to the children that it’s ok.

If Palmyra does disappear or is transformed into a maze of mole-like tunnels denoting systematic looting, we all let it happen.  Is it logical then to promote armed intervention as the only viable solution to protect Palmyra and other remnants of the “cradle of civilization”?  Are we ready to die for the cause of world culture and our past heritage?

We have reached a breaking point where our current national leaders the world over do not want to risk global war over the destruction of cultural sites but they sure are willing to do so because one country might or might not have a nuclear bomb.

None of this makes any sense.
Let’s drink some tea, play cards, watch the sun set and indulge in idle chatter. It’s safer that way.

Or let's act. But how?