A few months ago an Islamist terrorist was found guilty by the International Criminal Court in The Hague of having destroyed Timbuktu’s cultural heritage in his acts of vandalism against Sufi shrines; burial places of the great men after whom the ‘City of 333 Saints’ is named. He has been ordered to pay more than $3 million in fines along with his lengthy jail sentence; but that doesn’t matter, because the shrines have been destroyed. Sure, they are being rebuilt – but they are now just replicas of 700 year old structures. The door that was to remain ‘closed until the end of the world’ once opened cannot be closed again.
Now in point of fact these Sufi shrines are deeply offensive to the many hundreds of millions of Hanbali Muslims (among others). They are considered to be idolatry. But does this justify their destruction? Al Qaida thought so.
Destruction of monuments to the past is not uncommon – it even has a fancy word, iconoclasm. It’s a sad word; it depicts shattered stained glass glinting brilliantly across the stone floor of a ravaged church, or colorful mosaics of old being pried up in tiny pieces from the floor of a monastery by a sweaty-toothed madman naked but for his chisel. Explosions of dynamite and stupidity bringing down ancient Buddhas. ‘A breaker or destroyer of images’ says the dictionary – a destroyer. For those of us who look back to history to try and understand who we are, where we came from, and what were the great struggles which made our history; and for those of us with some understanding of time and a certain impetus for significance, it makes us somehow melancholy as we wonder whether ignorant mobs of the future will also find us wanting and our work imperfect, and tear it down as well – and we will be forgotten.
Statues are like bookmarks in chapters about our past. Some chapters are great! Heroic episodes saving humanity and defending the defenseless. Some chapters are hard to read – civil wars and Indian massacres. Statues remind us of these events, they give us an opportunity to think about our common past; to consider what went right and what went wrong and how we harness the good and eschew the evil that we will always have in our midst. We are human after everything – imperfect beings all.
What statues are not: they are not temples and need not command adoration, or hatred. I have examined the length of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC looking for the name of a loved one who was killed in that war; as I’m sure many of you have. Though I did not know him, the memorial is an opportunity to remember him and honor his sacrifice for his country – even if the war he fought in was ill-conceived. I have crept through the preserved torture chambers of Idi Amin in Uganda and visited the dungeons of death beneath the old buildings in old-downtown Bratislava, heavy with instruments of pain. None of this brings me into common cause with the violence. The world is littered with bookmarkers to our past; memories of fallible men, who often did terrible things, serving as reminders for other fallible men who might do the same.
In a mausoleum in Red Square known as ‘Lenin’s Tomb’ the embalmed body of Vladimir Lenin awaits the curious visitor; Hugo Chavez’s final resting place is to be found, surrounded by an honor guard, in a famous fort called the Cuartel de la Montana. These men were great men, even if they were not good men. Their names stride across the pages of history even while their efforts plunged millions into hunger and despair. Should we rip down the memorials? Should we torch the Cuartel in rage at the ruin Venezuela has become? We certainly would be justified in doing so; but if we did, we would be no better than they were. By attempting to wipe away their memory, we are in fact erasing a piece of ourselves, leaving us and our children only with emptiness where character should be instead.
And always remember that blank walls do not inspire, pageless books are unable to convey wisdom, and lives lived without contemplating the wide range of human action are powerless in the construction of a better world.