By Fleming Smith
In late August of this year, the terrorist group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) destroyed historic ruins at Palmyra, a site in central Syria. ISIS frequently uses the media to broadcast their actions, from cultural destruction at places like Palmyra to publicized executions, in order to shock the rest of the world, as well as to gain followers. On September 8, several faculty members responded to the events at Palmyra and invited participation from the audience. Dr. Jeff Thompson of the Art History department led the discussion, which included Dr. Chris McDonough of Classical Languages, Dr. Jacqueline DiBiasie Sammons of Classical Archaeology, Dr. Nicholas Roberts of History, and Dr. Sara Nimis, a Mellon Globalization Forum Fellow.
Thompson began the discussion by contrasting ISIS’s cultural destruction with its human destruction. “People matter much more than things, but it seems cultural vandalism can make more of an [impact] than cold-blooded murder,” he said on the subject. He later asked the panelists why Palmyra’s loss makes such an impression on us, prompting Sammons to answer, “Archaeology allows us to see ourselves in human continuity…and no one understands that better than ISIS.” In other words, the shock value of seeing a mushroom cloud where historic ruins once stood can be horrifying, but ISIS also understands the long-term effects of forever losing a piece of human heritage.
The panelists acknowledged ISIS’s manipulation of Western media to suit the group’s purposes. “There’s something about an image that touches us,” said Nimis, referencing a recent picture of a drowned Syrian boy. When ISIS uploads a video of a huge explosion or another beheading, it’s a targeted message to an encroaching “West,” to potential followers, and perhaps even to posterity. However, the message is not as purely ideological as ISIS claims. The group purportedly destroyed Palmyra because of its depictions of idols, as idolatry is strongly prohibited by Islam. “[But] you don’t destroy idols if they’re not worshipped … they’re making a lot of money off the sale of these ‘impure’ idols,” said Roberts. Panelists then raised the question of whether museums around the world should start buying these stolen artifacts from ISIS themselves—otherwise, they may disappear into the black market, never to be seen again. There’s no easy answer, as this would entail funding ISIS. “We would be ransoming future pasts for the sake of the present past,” said McDonough, paraphrasing a remark by his wife. On either side of the debate, cultural destruction in some form is inevitable.
One of the last questions asked was which would take a “moral” priority: saving people or saving history? Some audience members leaned towards the side of saving history, citing its timelessness and universal relevance. Such interest is not purely scientific, however: “We construct ourselves as civilized by being horrified by the destruction of these things,” said Nimis. The panelists agreed that making this debate a moral question can be a false choice, and that regarding the destruction of Palmyra and any other destruction to follow, humans share a common duty no matter personal feelings. “In protecting the people,” said Sammons near the close of the debate, “we have a responsibility to protect their history and their culture.”