The End of Civilisation?

We in the West have always justified our actions and interventions with a strong resilience in the belief that we have a culture that understands those important qualities that make a great society: freedom of speech; religious tolerance; a sense of the humane; liberty. That it makes sense to a nation to export these criteria, with the sole intention of doing what is right for those who are less fortunate than us, is not a new quality or idea for a country that calls itself ‘Great’. In a word, we esteem to civilisation.

Yet how is it possible to maintain this delusion of being a civilised or great kingdom when we allow the very cradle of civilisation, the birthplace of so much of that in society which we cherish, to be destroyed? As a classicist, I naturally have a bias towards the preservation of the ancient monuments around the world, but my outrage at the most recent destruction of the ruins of the classical era in Palmyra by the terrorist group ISIS goes beyond a mere personal infatuation with history and the past. We here in the West, surrounded as we are by a rich, ancient, and noble culture well-preserved for all to experience and enjoy, are calmly sitting through the slow but unrelenting bulldozing of our collective heritage and the basis of our civilisation.

This of course begs the question, what can we do? How can we deal with a terrorist group, ISIS, that wantonly destroys history and spreads barbarism across the Middle East? It appears that we have been becoming more and more numb to the atrocities of ISIS, focussing more on the supposed growth and threat of the Russian bear, or the refugees begging to be let into our civilisation with theirs having been systematically wiped out. How many of us, for example, were aware of last month’s demolition by ISIS of three tombs dating to the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, in addition to the more infamous obliteration of the world-renowned Temple of Bel? It would also seem that those in Syria who still care for the preservation of these ancient monuments have all but given up faith on foreign aid. Indeed, Maamoun Abdulkarim, the antiquities director in Palmyra, said in an interview with the Guardian that “We have lost all hope, we have lost all hope that the international community will resist and we lost hope of any international movement to save the city. These are savages and [they] will attack other structures. This is a cultural war and everyone should unite, whether they support the government or the opposition. This is the beginning of the complete loss of Palmyra.”

The Temple of Bel (Photo by Arian Zwegers / CC BY 2.0)
The Temple of Bel (Photo by Arian Zwegers / CC BY 2.0)

It would be naive to suggest that the best way in which to deal with ISIS would be to march into Syria and the Middle East with trumpets sounding and drums playing, but this has now become an issue which cannot be ignored. Indeed, it is the duty of all parties to unite and come quickly to a decision in this respect, and to lay aside the party differences and fierce political debates in parliament which we in the West only enjoy because of the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Although open negotiation with the terrorist group may seem repulsive to many, if this is to be a policy which is rejected fundamentally, then we must come to the inevitable conclusion that military intervention is the only course of action, whether directly or with the aid of neighbouring or ally nations.

Many will say that this is folly, that foreign intervention is demonstrably unsound, having failed in Iraq and Libya. Yet who can honestly argue that the dubious, politically charged, and poorly managed wars of the past compare in intent, in justice, to the necessity of dealing with the erosion of the history that made and makes us who we are today?

Therefore I humbly urge you, reader, whether you believe in military intervention, whether you desire peaceful settlement or round-table negotiations, or indeed the supplication of aid to allow a nation to save itself, to compel the government and all opposition to come together and act; to stand against what is fast becoming the greatest loss of human record and achievement since the evil of Hitler darkly swept across Europe. For if we can allow two thousand years of human history and civilisation to be destroyed in the flash of gunpowder and mortar shell, how long will it be before we permit ourselves to descend into the abyss of barbarism?

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