I was shocked to hear news this morning that the Islamic State had been destroying Nimrud - an ancient city in northern Iraq originally called Kalhu. First, the museum in nearby Mosul was looted of its valuables (a pause for cynicism here), then the other museum exhibits were smashed to smithereens, and finally the bulldozers were sent in to bring down what was still standing of the ancient Assyrian city itself. Nimrud was an 890 acre site. It's entirely possible that it's been flattened beyond restoration. The BBC article, with some photos, is here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-31760656.
What mindset thought this the right thing to do? What kind of individuals set themselves to the task? In simple terms, it's obvious: the site was full of 'false images of a superseded, pre-Islam religion' and that alone was enough. It was also the pride of Iraq, a national treasure of the enemy government. I think this was a cultural and political gesture rolled into one.
On specifically the religious angle, these destroyers no doubt do feel that nothing worth knowing existed before Muhammad was divinely inspired 1,400 years ago. So it can all be junked - along with everything else that is deemed non-Islamic. There is a logic to this, and I can see how a person might regard an Assyrian winged bull as an irrelevance to be discarded without a qualm. Put simply, if it isn't permitted by holy text, it's an offence and must go. And anyone quibbling over that is tainted with heresy, and must go too.
It's easy to be appalled, but of course all over the world the sites of ancient civilisations have been destroyed by nature itself - sea level rise and volcanic activity accounting for many, and the gradual effects of wind and rain, and creeping jungle vegetation, have seen off as many more. And historic sites have always been casual victims of ordinary warfare. Despots have done what they wished throughout the ages - it's topical at the moment to mention the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII. A complete national heritage stripped bare and then efficiently dismantled for cash, all in the space of half a dozen years. These events should place the actions authorised by the Islamic State at Nimrud into some sort of perspective.
Thank goodness for museums scattered in safe places around the world. Something is still preserved. Museums are becoming as valuable as zoos are for safeguarding the nearly-gone. Without them, all would indeed be lost.
But there is a special aspect here that really disturbs me. It's the wiping-away of the past. Nimrud was founded around 3,250 years ago, and its heyday was around 2,800 years ago. It's very old indeed. Of an age long gone. How can it have any possible influence on affairs in the modern world? It represented an important stage in human cultural evolution. Studying that can reveal how we have progressed as intelligent and creative social animals. And this may in turn expose the true worth of what we have right now. We need constant douches of cold water to avoid hubris and a spurious sense of superiority. The past illuminates how little human nature has really changed. So deliberately destroying the past is to run away from a hard truth about how things actually are. Keep hold of that idea: throw the past away, and you lose base lines, other viewpoints, records to prove that things weren't so bad as the powerful say they were, records to prove that the world as it is now should be much better, given the time that has passed and the opportunities that have come along.
Governments intent on absolute control and maintaining a fixed status quo have clear techniques to employ that get used again and again. Classically they establish a simple rigorously-enforced political doctrine; a stripped-back inflexible regime for living, with restricted ways of thinking; and they see to it that all history is abolished, and that the citizens have no exposure to outside art and culture. Think of Huxley's Brave New World and Orwell's 1984. In fact, contemplate the fate of Stonehenge in either world. Would it be grassed over, bulldozed or just left to rot? Orwell didn't mention what would be the fate of Glastonbury Tor in 1984, nor whether a secret group of Cornish proles were keeping alive the legend of King Arthur.
I think the people joining the Islamic State are being politically manipulated, even though many of them are undoubtedly persons of great intelligence. They are offered the notion of an Islamic Brotherhood that transcends nations. They are made to feel different, distinct, disrespected, the potential rescuers of the disadvantaged, victimised, and brutalised - which turns them into freedom fighters, righteous champions of a just cause, pure at heart, with a wonderful and glorious religious reward if death takes them.
When your consciousness is elevated above ordinary concerns, when the authorisation for any act can be found in revered text that inspires you, and that text can explain everything - when there are no doubts whatever - it is easy to lose any sense of personal responsibility and any atrocity or outrage is within your reach. Ordinary law, ordinary sanctions, do not matter. You are one of the Chosen Instruments, a hero. Much indeed as the Japanese Kamikaze pilots were in the closing stages of the Pacific War from October 1944. (Islamic State fighters and their helpers have of course been rather more effective)
All this is depressing. But all of it is the repetition of an historical pattern. I'd say that defeating the Islamic State will require no half-measures - troops in huge numbers must go in. The IS fighters must see that no divine hand exists to shield them. And then their survivors must be gently brought back from their delusions, and given the chance of becoming doctors and teachers and scientists - or just ordinary mums and dads again. We must all settle down, and get on with what really matters.
Out there in space a big rock is bound to be hurtling towards us. One day it will be detected, and tracked, and its impact will be announced. Maybe tomorrow, who knows? It will spell the end of the world as we know it. Taking a cosmic view, this won't be a concern: even a scoured and reconstituted Earth will eventually develop fresh life forms, and given a few hundred million years the planet will be teeming again, a new 'Garden of Eden' if you like. Me? I'd be terrified about the last hours, about how I would die. Death from an overwhelming shock wave is one thing. Surviving the impact, and then being murdered by someone looting my home would be quite another. And there would be looters.
There would also be people wandering around dazed, saying 'How could God let this happen?' and 'We prayed so hard.' and 'I lived such a pure life.' And I would look at them steadily. Then I'd offer a cup of tea, and tell them where to pick up some warm blankets.