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Pure Onsense

The Violence of History

Scott Zuke

(6/2015) The closing, gutting, and demolition of Thurmontís Cozy Restaurant was somehow both drawn out too long and over with all too quickly. The quirky 85-year-old establishment had hosted our family and friends my entire life, and it never crossed my mind that it could so suddenly be gone, first picked apart piece by piece by raw material scavengers. So many people expressed sadness at its demise, but in the end no one stepped forward to save it.

It was a close-to-home reminder of how violent the path of history can be. For the most part it is an unremitting process of creative destruction as the new is built on top of the old. There are only rare exceptions when people decide that something old carries a value worth preserving, and put up a protective barrier to block out the winds of time.

Time is patient, and always wins in the long run as the elements work to reclaim the land that people built on. "Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" said Ozymandias. Yet time is not the only destructive force to contend with. Businesses, for example, even local landmarks, must withstand the forces of economics as well.

But lately the most worrisome threat to history has been people themselves, namely the Islamic State (ISIS). This scourge of a movement has purposefully and publicly sought to destroy the cultural heritage of the peoples of Iraq and Syria, taking bulldozers and jackhammers to ancient artifacts, blowing up historical sites, and setting fire to libraries filled with ancient manuscripts.

Last month they captured Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Occupying a vital oasis in the middle of the Syrian desertónot far from Ozymandias, in factóthis ancient city once served as a crossroads for trade caravans crossing from the East as far away as China to the Roman empire in the West. It was strikingly well preserved, passing the ages gracefully. Until recently its only real threat came from the growth of the nearby modern town, but steps were being taken to mitigate the encroachment.

At the time of writing, the Islamic Stateís black flag is flying over the ancient ruins. They have sealed off the archaeological museum. Thankfully it was emptied of most of its precious artifacts before ISIS arrived. The world is waiting uneasily for whatever will happen next.

Many have asked why the Islamic State has targeted the regionís antiquities, which have mostly been bystanders throughout the last few years of brutal civil war in Syria. There are several reasons.

ISIS is of course looking for ways to sting its adversaries, and destroying their cultural heritage is a powerful symbolic way to do so. Even without having seen or known much about these artifacts on the other side of the earth, our hearts sink knowing that they will no longer be there.

Tactically, the Islamic State probably goes after ancient sites and antiquities because theyíre easy targets. They are remote and mostly unguarded. As precious as we feel these relics are, people generally are not willing to risk their lives for them.

Strategically, looted antiquities are one of the most important sources of the Islamic Stateís funding and help keep their operations going. What they donít destroy they sell on the black market. Much of the plunder ends up in America, traded amongst criminals and sold to unwitting collectors and interior decorators.

But there is also their ideological motivation, which is to raze anything that predates the founding of Islam. They see such items as "false idols" that donít fit into their extremist vision for the future.

While this is a despicable and destructive impulse, itís hardly anything new. In fact, itís a practice with roots going back beyond written history. The Egyptian pharaohs had a long tradition of systematically erasing the past each time a new ruler came into power. But they didnít tear down the monuments erected by their predecessors. They were smarter than that. Instead, they just scratched off the old signature and carved theirs on top.

In various forms throughout history, a recurring drive has been to annihilate or redefine the past in order to cleanse the foundation for a "better" future. This pernicious motive culminated in Americaís eugenics movement in the early 20th century, which came to focus on removing undesirable traits from society by preventing their transmission through reproduction.

By the 1930s, 30 states had enacted laws that led to the forced sterilization of people with disabilities, and even those who were simply poor. The Nazis took inspiration from Californiaís eugenics policy when designing their own program to develop the "Master Race." Ironically, in our own act of destroying an uncomfortable part of our past, this is a dark part of American history that is rarely taught.

The battle over history has become a front in the Culture War as one side sees the teaching of American exceptionalism as key to fostering nationalism and strengthening the country, while the other embraces teaching the uglier sides of history in order to correct issues still plaguing society today and to avoid repeating mistakes of the past. We know this is important enough to care deeply about, even if we might not agree on whatís worth storing in the nationís collective memory.

Those rare objects and places that everyone agrees to have historical value worth preserving take on a sacred quality. In the way that they interrupt the creative destruction of free-flowing history they both serve to weigh us down and provide us a sturdy foundation.

Whatever fate befalls Palmyra at the hands of ISIS, it will not vanish completely. This will simply be a new chapter in its long, ongoing story. While its beauty as a monument to our common history and the joining of East and West may be diminished, itólike Ozymandiasís ruined statue through Shelleyís poemówill find new meaning. And that will endure much longer than the sacrilegious thugs of the Islamic State.

Read other article by Scott Zuke