By Caleb R. Newton
There is a consistent strain of notoriety in world media regarding the destruction of cultural heritage artifacts. In late September 2015, the International Criminal Court (ICC) held a hearing for its first court case against an individual, Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, “concerning the destruction of buildings dedicated to religion and historical monuments,” according to BBC. Al-Mahdi is from a group that occupied Timbuktu, Mali, in 2012 and 2013. What are some of the underpinnings of the situation like that of al-Mahdi? Is the world pursuing a fool’s errand in attempting to prosecute him?
The answer to the previous question seems at first to be no. The world is, in theory, not pursuing a fool’s errand in attempting to prosecute al-Mahdi. To begin the discussion, consider the nature of art and cultural heritage and why anyone would want to destroy it in the first place. Pieces of cultural heritage, like that destroyed by al-Mahdi’s group in Timbuktu and that destroyed by the Islamic State elsewhere, represent a tangible expression of what it means to be a person. Arts and culture has existed since well before the advent of writing - think Stonehenge in the United Kingdom, an ancient monument. As such, art must touch on something inherent to the human condition, as the ancients had very little in common with us, and yet, they still had art and culture. They still built monuments, and if the art of the prehistoric (pre-writing) peoples reflected an integral part of their existence, how much more so of the art of those of much more recent times! Much of the art destroyed in Timbuktu and elsewhere is from times well after the prehistoric era.
Since art and cultural heritage delivers a tangible expression of individuality and an inroad to what it means to be a human with a mind and a will, the destruction of cultural heritage is an attack upon the most sensitive areas of human existence. International legal action is therefore a reasonable response.
There are two sides to every argument, however. First, consider the actual effectiveness of destruction of cultural heritage—it’s evil, but is it practical? Does it actually accomplish lasting negative effects upon a population? Here the answer again seems to be no. Societies are generally well able to remain stable after the destruction of cultural heritage, leading to asking whether pursuing al-Mahdi is too idealistic. Is it treating the symptoms instead of the causes? The answer to the previous questions seem to be yes. Generally speaking, the destruction of cultural heritage does not actually entail the destruction of people. People, humanity, lives on and replaces whatever was lost. We, humanity, are not our material possessions. Arts and culture are expressions of the innermost individuality of a person, not the thing itself.
Destroying cultural heritage antagonizes the identity of persons, but it does not actually affect the existence of that identity. It is clear why such evil-feeling acts would be considered worthy of legal pursuit by the international community, as they are punitive attacks on innocent civilization. However, “feelings” often lead to bad results, or put another way, the (apparently) best of intentions can lead to the worst results.
In an ideal world, in which there were no other atrocities taking place, it would be great to prosecute such an act as destruction of heritage. However, as reports stream in of attack after murderous attack on Jewish Israelis by Palestinian terrorists, as videos go across social media of Syrian children and their rescuers being hit by missile strikes as the children’s lives are attempted to be saved - the issue of prosecuting cultural heritage destruction turns into not a fool’s errand, but a smokescreen to avoid addressing the issues uncomfortable to the world. As stated above, feelings lead to bad results, and the same certainly applies here. The world is concerned about what it feels good to be concerned about, and it refuses to address items such as terrorism. Without the delivery of consequences, the terrorist attacks increase at the, for all reasonable purposes, bidding of the world and of the ICC.
(Image: ICC logo - Google Images)
[The views expressed in this publication are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Dissecting Society]