What’s More Important Than a Life?

By Jack Apollo George

Mesopotamia was the birthplace of civilization. Its fertile lands allowed for the first instances of agriculture and organized society. From between the rivers Euphrates and Tigris emerged the first empires. From within that crescent of land came the first accounts of writing and the rest, as they say, is history.

The Islamic State’s indisputably effective media arm wielded yet another masterstroke by announcing that it had bulldozed the ancient Assyrian archeological site at Nimrud, Iraq. Though burning people in cages, selling women and children as sex slaves, throwing gays off buildings and countless beheadings had rightly outraged many the world over, these recent attacks on the very foundations of human civilization struck a whole new nerve.

But the question is whether it is any worse. Does reconfiguring stone, when imbued with cultural connotations trump exterminating a living person? The tangible human abuses carried out by the group have become so commonplace that each new beheading loses relative shock-value. They tried doing several (21) at once in Libya, but this only furthered the impression that banality had attached itself to barbarity. The blatant destruction of cultural artifacts is just the latest way of them grabbing our attention, and it worked.

UNESCO declared it a war crime and public figures declared their outrage but the IS has been committing war crimes on a daily basis. Further, the great stone edifices at Nimrud and other places, as beautiful and important as they are were, were doubtlessly constructed under slave-labor and a monstrously oppressive regime, the likes of which the IS would love to emulate.

The Islamic State’s espoused ideology would suggest that they were merely eradicating false idols, cleansing their newly appropriated lands of any pre-Mohammedan religion. But it would take a special sort of fool to sincerely believe that the militants think that Iraqis were still going around worshipping winged bulls with human faces. The Islamic State may be driven by heinous Wahhabi fundamentalism but their modus operandi is terrorist, and terror is employed in order to provoke. It is unlikely that anything they do will force President Obama’s hand into declaring total war but actions like these can nonetheless provoke serious questions for us in the West, the crimes’ intended audience.

We live in a world where horror is commonplace if not immediate. Our interconnected global space hosts countless abuses each day. Our media and our choice of media select which atrocities we perceive as being especially awful. The destruction of artifacts, culture and history strikes us as particularly bad, not necessarily because it is worse, but simply because it is rarer. We have been over-saturated with violence to the point where the sight of broken stones hurts more than that of broken bones.

I heard a story once from a man, an actor, who had run away from the Ayatollah’s regime in Iran. He said how he had a come across a man cleaning a bathroom once who seemed especially jovial. The actor was having a rough day and asked the man to what he owed his happiness. The man explained how he had a successful business that left him feeling unsatisfied. So one day, he quit his job and swore to never listen or watch the news ever again. And thus, he found joy.

Absolute denial might not be the best way forward but rather one should be aware that when dealing with a group like the IS, outrage begets horror. Reaction only fuels their fire further. Their media output is astonishingly sophisticated and ruthlessly exploits our own and the media’s complicity in the spread of their barbarity.

Increasingly, western powers seem unable to articulate what it is that we believe in. We know what it is that we dislike, yet we fail to defeat it. Progress cannot solely be negative. We need to believe in something. Perhaps that something would be the defense of some conception of civilization, or perhaps it would simply be the integrity of individual persons. The question asked in the title is one for each of us to ponder. Its answer might indeed frame the intellectual standpoint of our age.