The song of destruction. Fire. Torrents of water. Earthquakes. More fire.
Entire libraries, unique works of art, and countless other artifacts of our knowledge and heritage have been destroyed during natural disasters. Examples of our helplessness facing the gigantic forces of cataclysms are legion throughout history.
The song of destruction. Bullets. Shells. Mortar rounds. Rockets. Bombs. Fire.
Conflicts have perhaps been the most destructive forces against our heritage. We human beings have a long, shameful tradition of trying to erase entire populations from history by destroying their cultures. Of course nazi Germany is probably the first example that comes to mind, but let’s not forget all the wars, ethnic cleansings and genocides before that. The Library of Alexandria being torched, Bagdad under siege by the Mongols are famous examples of our tendency to let stupidity and brutality destroy wisdom and knowledge.
The destruction of knowledge committed by the nazis (and, as collateral damages of bombings, by Allied forces) has been quite well documented, for example in The Rape Of Europa, contrary to the damages inflicted by more recent conflicts, which haven’t been thoroughly investigated, despite the fact that a wide variety of independent medias have been covering these wars extensively.
The talibans infamously destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas; the Khmer Rouge burned down every single library they could find. Right now, the Islamic State, the Syrian Army and other groups (most of them loosely affiliated with Al-Qaeda or other extremist organizations) are destroying and plundering archeological sites in Syria and Iraq – profiting from the sale of the stolen, but unfortunately mostly scientifically destroyed artifacts (an artifact taken out of its archeological context – strata, etc… is mostly useless for scientific research). These crimes aren’t prosecuted (of course it’s rather difficult when the entire region is deep inside a sectarian conflict), and if it weren’t for the courageous and outstanding work of men like Cheikmous Ali and his non profit APSA, which documents heritage destruction in Syria, we wouldn’t even know about them in the first place.
For those of you who speak/understand french, the german-french TV station Arte made a great documentary on how stolen artifacts sold in the West are financing terrorism in the Middle East, which features APSA’s work in Syria.
If you weren’t convinced yet, I hope you now realize humanity’s collective heritage is and has always been threatened by conflicts, natural disasters or just sheer stupidity. We just cannot tolerate that in a modern, civilized world. It is both terrible for our history and for our knowledge – we won’t have any other chance to learn things from destroyed artifacts. This quote from Matthew Bogdanos’ excellent book Thieves of Baghdad (a man who witnessed knowledge destruction and eventually became a specialist in retrieving stolen artifacts and protecting them while serving in the US military in Iraq) nicely sums up the tragedy of heritage looting and destruction: “The Rockefeller Wing of the Met contains a treasure trove of antiquities from Peru. But how did they get there? It is well-known that looting has ravaged Peru for decades. In other regions, [like Syria and Iraq right now] looting is destroying sites as soon as they are discovered, crushing any hope of learning about previously unknown cultures.”
What can be done about this?
Since the end of WWII most armies have internal guidelines to not attack cultural sites, something the United Nations also tries to address with the Blue Shield program. Basically, blue shields, literally, are painted on the buildings which are to be spared from air strikes and heavy shelling. However recent examples show these initiatives aren’t sufficient, in part because most conflicts aren’t fought only by national armies but by rebel groups too, which aren’t complying with international laws, and also because the international community doesn’t care about this issue at all. The UNESCO witnessed the plundering and destruction of World Heritage Sites in Syria without flinching, cynically classifying the Syrian sites as “threatened” after the fact.
The United Nations, despite its great ideals, is totally incapable of maintaining peace, and prefers seminars, conferences and committees to actually getting people on the ground to protect civilians and heritage sites. What is needed is a real international army, like the Blue Helmets but with the power to engage in combat when it is necessary (and not just as self defense) to protect cultural sites. (As a side note, to protect civilians, the Blue Helmets need to be deployable swiftly wherever there are conflicts and be allowed to use deadly force whenever they see fit. Right now deploying Blue Helmets is a long and complex bureaucratic mess. It ought to be simple. If a conflict threatens civilians and if the Blue Helmets can make a difference, they should be deployed.)
In practice, it would mean having personnels guarding museums, libraries, and monuments in war zones. The Bamiyan Buddhas could have been saved if the talibans had met resistance from an international military force. Likewise, if the archeological sites in Syria and Iraq were protected, plundering wouldn’t take place there. As the Blue Shield is already an existing program, I’ll call this international military unit the Blue Shield Force.
The Blue Shield Force would be composed of volunteers (not necessarily from the military) who would be trained by powerful armies (NATO members for example) and then deployed around the world to protect endangered heritage sites. It is important that these people volunteer, that protecting knowledge is their choice, because in case of casualties, the blame won’t be on the governments for irresponsibly sending troops to protect “some rocks”. Avoiding such PR disasters for governments is important to ensure they participate in the Blue Shield Force.
To decide which sites should be protected, a group of international experts (librarians, archeologists, historians…) would propose and vote on potential targets. The Blue Shield Force command team would then decide how many men to send there and how to equip them, in cooperation with the experts to make sure the response is appropriate.
Like the Blue Helmets the Blue Shield Force would be financed by the UN, but also by private donors – if people want to donate to help protect our collective heritage, they ought to be able to do so.
Unfortunately most countries are unlikely to commit resources to protect knowledge. However, a side benefit of knowledge protection could encourage them to fund the Blue Shield Force: by preventing plundering, the Blue Shield Force would dramatically reduce art trafficking and thus cut a major source of revenues for terrorist organizations like the Islamic State.
The Blue Shield Force is essential in order to protect our cultural heritage during conflicts. In peace time, natural disasters and “natural” decay are the main threats to our heritage. Fortunately, libraries are getting digitized at an accelerating pace, and we can expect to have digital backups of most of our texts rather soon. Monuments, on the other hand, are more difficult to preserve. A non profit called CyArk is using lasers to digitize entire buildings which is a great way to have a very detailed view of the monument in case it is damaged by some hazardous weather or by a conflict later on.
A combination of the Blue Shield Force, to protect our cultural heritage during conflicts, and of non profits like CyArk, to digitize it before a conflict or a natural disaster has a chance to destroy it, is a pretty solid insurance policy against time.
Furthermore, those who destroy or attempt to destroy our heritage should be prosecuted. Burning an important library is an odious crime. Destroying a World Heritage Site or other monuments internationally recognized as important for all humankind should be tried as a crime against humanity.
The destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas falls into the latter category. No one in the taliban was prosecuted for it. Every single senior taliban official responsible for this crime is still at large. The Mullah Omar, as the leader of the talibans ordered the Buddhas to be destroyed. He’s hiding somewhere in Pakistan. However as the top commander of the talibs, he might one day suffer the same fate as Usama Bin Laden. Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, former Foreign Minister of the talibans, is a free man living in Kabul. At the time of the Buddhas’ destruction, he said: “We do admit all these statues were the cultural heritage of Afghanistan, but we will not leave the part which is contrary to our belief.” The whereabouts of former Information Minister Qudratullah Jamal aren’t known, but he is presumably still alive and at large too.
Talibans’ spokesman Rahmatullah Hashemi, who defended the destruction of the Buddhas during an interview with Charlie Rose in 2001, is now working at the “Peace Research Institute Oslo” (PRIO), in Norway. He seems to have changed his mind about the talibans, and has left the group since at least 2004-2005. Still, even if he now condemns the destruction of the Buddhas (which, without public statements from him, cannot be verified), he was involved in it as a senior official of the regime. His responsibility in this crime should be decided by an International Court. Requests for an interview with Hashemi went unanswered.
Interpol ought to have a division in charge of these kinds of crimes. They already have people working on stolen art and heritage, like Syrian artifacts or art stolen by the nazis, but they suffer from a terrible lack of resources and people to be capable of really hitting art trafficking hard. It is crucial to truly fund an investigation unit assigned to find and prosecute people who commit crimes against our cultural heritage, as well as fight against art trafficking and try to curtail it as much as possible. For the latter, tough sanctions on auction houses like Sotheby’s which sell artifacts from dubious provenances could be a good deterrent. A moratorium on selling Syrian artifacts is needed right now.
So in a nutshell, here’s the plan to protect our knowledge as much as possible from our stupidity and from natural disasters: prevention via restoration and digitization, protection with the Blue Shield Force, and prosecution with an Interpol “Blue Shield Group”.
In the (very) long term though, we can hope to have to rely on the Blue Shield Force and the Interpol Blue Shield Group less and less – that is, if we can offer an affordable, humanist and secular education to most of the world’s population. Truly educated people don’t destroy knowledge.