We should not just be concerned about the destruction of ancient sites in Syria (both the country and the historic region) because of the loss of cultural heritage and the archaeological record (although these are bloody good reasons in their own right) but because such cultural vandalism* is a clear and terrifying signal of intent. This is because the desire to utterly eliminate the past is always and inevitably linked to the desire to utterly eliminate all those who do not fit in with the new order. We have seen this before, most frequently due to the actions of Asian Communists, and so we know exactly what to expect: no wonder people flee in their hundreds of thousands.
This is a disturbing subject and I’ve thought about it a lot recently (a matter on which I suspect I am not exactly alone). Where does this impulse – the desire for Year Zero – come from? Why was it so frequently associated with Asian Communism and why has it more recently been associated with some of the more extreme versions of Islamism? It is not enough to suggest that it is an inevitable by-product of Utopianism-via-violence: the Soviet Union committed many and terrible acts of cultural vandalism and political murder in the name of Utopia, but never attempted to eliminate all traces of the past. It is not enough to point to mere iconoclasticism (in fact doing so often reeks of desperation) either. There have to be answers to this, but for now I’m drawing as much of a blank (hah) as everyone else.
*Although the use of this term to describe current events is more than a little unkind on the Vandals…