Islamic State’s systematic destruction of Palmyra is a kind of shock they cannot get from killing civilians.
As the mushroom cloud rises once again in the middle-east, at its feet this time are four inert columns set in stark contrast against the fury of explosive destruction. It is not difficult to make a comparison between the juxtaposition of creativity and demolition in this image. It shows the imagination of the human mind at two, very different, ends of the spectrum.
One of the greatest cities in the ancient world, Palmyra stood at the metaphorical crossroads of connection between East and West. One sadly ironic thing is that these structures, and their Greco-Roman stylization, reflect the integration of Eastern and Western cultures that were mixing at the time of their creation. An integration that is sadly under threat by the constant aggravation of religion and theocracy.
What has so far been written on the destruction of Palmyra has consisted mainly of despair, as if it were necessary to note the extreme cruelty of Islamic State. But Palmyra has much more cultural significance than any single person Islamic State can execute. It has ideological significance.
There are, of course, more political and expedient motives here than the mere desire to spread misery. Its destruction is an attempt to taunt the West into action. It wants to help the West know its enemy and by extension show it to be an enemy of Islam. Centuries have passed since the wars of religion ceased in Europe, and since men stopped dying in large numbers because of arcane theological disputes.
Islamic State aspires to nothing less than to be the catalyst to restart these wars. Its war crimes have not been kept in the shadows. On the contrary they explicitly go out of their way to aestheticize them and send them around the internet. It is a macabre marketing campaign.
It would perhaps be easy to trivialise the devastation of Palmyra’s history. It would perhaps also be easy to categorize it as an act that simply follows in line with all the other atrocities that Islamic State has committed. However, to do so would be an oversight. The destruction of Palmyra was a symbolic act to show Islamic State’s dedication to its ideology. It cannot be justified as a necessary war crime (if such a thing exists). Some war crimes can be, if not morally, then strategically justified. The destruction of Palmyra cannot be morally or strategically justified. It was done because it was a religious and historical site; and so continues the war between religions, except this time it was a culture long died out. In doing this Islamic State has achieved a kind of retroactive ethnic cleansing.
Islamic State sees Palmyra’s temples predominantly as part of a polytheistic culture and consequently the contention that it has with these statues is that they are a threat to their dominance and their rhetoric. Islamic State wants to show its audience that it is doing its religious duty by destroying ‘unreligious’ objects. Like any totalitarian state wanting to keep its position of power it must be willing to repress, destroy, and remove any opposition in order to keep its ideological authority.
All theistic belief is in some sense totalitarian in that it provides you with a supervisor you never asked for and cannot be rid of. Anyone who says they have ‘God on their side’ immediately allows themselves the liberty to commit any crime, and often simultaneously with a certain degree of sadism, self-righteousness, and contentment.
It would be complacent to see the Islamic State militants as an abstraction of humanity, but they are not. They are just the same as you. This last image of Palmyra shows us therefore something about our self; it is a brutal conjunction of the limits of our own imagination. After all, religion is just creativity gone wrong. It is the sort of imagination that eats at us from within, like a cancer of reason and sensibility. Perhaps, to quote the most apt painter for these desolate circumstances, Francisco Goya, the sleep of reason really does bring forth monsters.
(Images courtesy of https://news.vice.com and www.theguardian.com)