Last Thursday the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria - ISIS - released a youtube video showing men gleefully destroying the Mosul Museum in northern Iraq. With snappy Arabic music playing in the background they appeared to be having a fine time smashing statues and sculptures, works of art dating back to the ancient Assyrian Empire of King Sennacherib. Bearded and dressed in Islamic garb or clean-shaven and dressed in jeans and tee shirts they knocked statues from their stands and, wielding sledge-hammers and power tools, wiped out within minutes a part of the shared history of human civilization that had been preserved for over 3,000 years.
It would have been better if those irreplaceable pieces of life from the past had stayed hidden beneath the earth where archeologists found them until a better moment in human history. Now those pieces are gone forever.
Cultural genocide, the act has been called, though the group in the video resembled a pack of out-of-control boys on a wrecking spree.
This is a group that murders innocent people in gruesome snuff-style videos then posts them on youtube. Is there any point, then, in asking how they could do the same to priceless art?
Except that art, really wonderful beautiful art, transcends people, cultures, and time. It's even been known to transcend war and hatred.
Take the story of German General Dietrich von Choltitz, last Nazi commander of occupied Paris during World War II.
Though he'd previously carried out the seige and capture of Sevastopol and had allowed the execution of thousands of Russian Jews in that city, when ordered by Hitler to destroy Paris, leave it in rubble, erase it from the face of the earth, von Choltitz found himself unable to carry out the order.
Perhaps von Choltitz was moved by the powerful appeal of the mayor of Paris Pierre Charles Tattinger who said to him,
"Often it is given a general to destroy, rarely to preserve. Imagine that one day it may be given you to stand on this balcony again, as a tourist, to look once more on these monuments ... and be able to say, 'One day I could have destroyed this, and I preserved it as a gift to humanity.' General, is not that worth all a conqueror's glory?'" ("Dietrich von Choltitz: Saved of Paris From Destruction During World War II", historynet.com, June 12, 2006).
And so, though he'd ordered the mining of buildings whose architecture alone were works of art and which held treasure troves of timeless art and literature, he never gave the order to detonate the mines and the most beautiful city on earth was saved for humanity.
Because that beautiful city spoke to what little soul von Chotiltz still possessed.
The problem with ISIS, then, I suppose, is that neither art nor history speaks to their souls.
Nor did the thousands of centuries-old rare books and manuscripts now gone forever after ISIS henchboys burned the Mosul Public Library a few days before they destroyed the museum.
Literature, art, history, the worth of human life, none of these things engage the mean souls of the destructive young minions of the leaders of ISIS.
It appears that the ISIS minions can only relate, respond, and react to something flashing before them on an i-phone or a video screen.
1. "ISIS Destroys Library In Mosul, Burning Thousands Of Rare Manuscripts, Artifacts", www.inquisitr.com, February 24, 2015.
2. "With Sledgehammer, Islamic State smashes Iraqi History", Isabel Coles and Saif Hameed, ARBIL/BAGHDAD (Reuters) February 26, 2015.
3. "Why is ISIS destroying ancient artifacts in Iraq?" , Jessica Mendoza, The Christian Science Monitor, February 26, 2015.
4. "ISIS Onslaught Overruns Assyrians and Wrecks Art" New York Times, Anne Barnard, February 27, 2015.
5. "Dietrich von Choltitz: Saved of Paris From Destruction During World War II", historynet.com, June 12, 2006.
6. "Dietrich von Choltitz", Wikipedia.