Last May, the Islamic State took the ancient city of Palmyra. Why should we care that it is being destroyed?
ISIS doesn’t have a good track record with UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Nimrud, Nineveh, and now Palmyra have been destroyed under its rule, creating a storm of publicity and engendering hate and fear. Explosives and sledgehammers have met irreplaceable works of art and left them dust, on the grounds that they are idolatrous. Yes, many of these buildings were sacred to ancient gods, gods who are largely forgotten. So why should modern humanity mourn the loss? We believe in completely different gods. Some of us believe in no gods at all.
Suppose that we were to go back in time and systematically destroy any people that worshipped or thought differently than we do. As we go further and further back, we encounter people that are more and more different from us. We find ancestors before they lost or found faith, we find brothers before they took different paths and became the patriarchs of different cultures. To destroy them would mean that we were never born.
To single out groups for obliteration is to deny part of the human story, to remove the memory of nations and their people from the tapestry of history. The human family is all connected. Believer or nonbeliever, we would not be who we are without the influence of many different peoples and faiths. We have always needed one another and continue to do so. Denying this feeds the absolute worst in our already tribal understanding of the world: that we, and people like us, contain the only viable understanding, and anyone else is worth less than we are. This lies behind every type of racism on the globe.
The scariest thing about ISIS is that they take destruction to a new level. This is not a group that will keep the art and riches of the defeated, but one that will destroy every trace of the enemy, even if the “enemy” has been dead for centuries. The destruction of Palmyra is a warning to civilizations living today that practice life differently than ISIS. A warning that they would like to kill you and then remove any trace that you have ever lived from our world. There was a culture in Europe once that had a similar dream. Thank God it is not yet within our grasp as human beings.
Want to know more about Palmyra? Check out the UNESCO entry here.