Winged-bull guardians of the ancient city of Nimrud were reportedly destroyed by ISIS bulldozers earlier this month.
Winged-bull guardians of the ancient city of Nimrud were reportedly destroyed by ISIS bulldozers earlier this month.

Interview: ISIS Eradicating History

by / Mar. 18, 2015 6am EST

On February 26, ISIS released a video (below) depicting militants ransacking a museum in Mosul in northern Iraq that contained ancient artifacts from the Assyrian and Akkadian empires. As it turns out, almost everything that was destroyed were replicas, the originals had long been removed to a safe location—although that in itself is an ever-evolving story

As if in revenge from being thwarted from destroying actual artifacts, ISIS reportedly trained bulldozers on the ruins of the ancient city of Nimrud earlier this month, a major historical site on the Nineveh plains. 

The Public interviewed Buffalo scholar Steven Miller, whose book War After Death investigates the cultural and historical significance of violence against inanimate objects.

Your book, War After Death, makes the case for the so-called “collateral damage” of war beond the body counts and argues that the Taliban’s destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan should be classified as an act of war. What are some of the first things you thought of when you saw footage of ISIS destroying ancient artifacts in Mosul?

Even before I saw this footage, just hearing about it, I wondered about the connection between this video and the series of increasingly outrageous videos that ISIS has released during the past several months. My book is less about the category of “collateral damage” per se than the logical and political connection between violence against the living and violence against nonliving things such as cultural artifacts; and so this sudden shift from videos of men beheading or immolating other men (interestingly, no women anywhere) to those of men destroying ancient statues was both highly troubling and familiar to me. What seems obvious—although the press either has not noticed or hesitated to say so—is that these acts of “cultural terrorism” are situated as the latest in a chain of ever more horrifying and provocative displays of violence. Each new video ups the ante on the previous videos; and this new video is no exception. The burning of invaluable books and the wrecking of ancient statues is clearly intended to be “worse” than any of the foregoing atrocities. 

It has recently been reported that many of the objects that members of ISIS destroyed in this video were in fact replicas. If true, this fact is obviously of enormous importance. It changes the cultural “death toll” and thereby—to our collective relief—lessens the gravity of the crime. On another level, however, the fact that mainly replicas were destroyed does not make the act of destruction any “better.” On the contrary, it serves to remind us that this act does not consist of an instrumental use of violence (as if the point were merely to get rid of a few statues) but rather a demonstrative and hyperbolic outburst of violence (showing that ISIS cannot be expected to respect any of legal, conventional, or customary limits upon the exercise of violence, not even the limits that their own previous acts might imply).

Of course, there is no lack of recognition that the destruction of ancient artworks—even if limited—is utterly catastrophic. The director-general of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), Irina Bokova, has publicly denounced this destruction as a war crime; many others around the world have used the strongest possible language—as I agree they should do—to decry this irreparable loss to human history. And yet, urgent and apposite as such language is, it still categorizes these acts as a special type of cultural violence. As a result, it remains valid only if the destroyed objects are originals, not copies. The press summons archaeologists rather than military historians or policy experts for comment. I also think that it is safe to say that many people (myself included) actually watched this video, whereas they refused to watch the others, presumably because we feel that it is less difficult to behold a man wielding a sledgehammer against body of stone than a man taking a knife to the neck of a living victim. But this feeling might well be deceptive. To my thinking, the feelings of horror or repulsion that violence provokes are not necessarily a reliable measure of its extremity. The mere fact that we are willing to watch suggests that such violence is more likely to go unchecked in future. But it also suggests that—even in the face of an explicit provocation—we do not really consider attacks upon cultural artifacts as politically consequential violence, like violence against the living. Going forward, I expect that this deeply entrenched cultural attitude will need to change (just as our attitude about ecological violence has changed, albeit not enough).

The Buddhas of Bamiyan were destroyed by the Taliban in March 2001. 

Perhaps part of it is that we’re saturated by both fictive and very real violence in our daily lives, whereas the destruction of history has the outward impression of being something novel and unique. You criticize the press for its coverage of the event, what should the response be? 

I would not claim to know or to dictate what anyone’s response should be. Nonetheless, it is interesting to notice that there is a certain disconnect between what we are being made to watch—a hyper-violent sequence of images that culminate in the destruction of defenseless, inanimate objects—and the way in which institutions, academics, and the press have chosen to explain, evaluate, or translate this spectacle for their audience. What hasn’t been emphasized enough, to my mind, is that the destruction of books and statues is not merely an affair of culture, not merely a matter for UNESCO, historians, archaeologists, or museum directors. Such destruction is not merely a lesser subcategory of violence; it is violence that should be considered equally (if not more) grave than violence against living human beings. Everyone can relate to body counts. Such figures “hit home,” as it were, because they enumerate deaths. Death is singular and universal, concrete and abstract, near and far. Across vast distances of space and time, we are in the habit of feeling the death of others within ourselves. Moreover, death is widely considered to be the “worst,” the most extreme and lamentable outcome of violence; and, as the worst, the event of death implicitly calls for various forms of public outcry designed to show that show that language and society are capable of confronting the most extreme challenges to their survival. By contrast, we are not in the habit of identifying with books or statues; we do not gather and publish “body counts” for inanimate objects because the “death” of such things is not considered to be universal. First of all, this “death” is merely death in quotation marks. To all appearances, no living being is actually harmed in the ISIS videos. Books are set on fire and bodies of stone are broken to bits, but no one is killed. This might be why these acts, despite the images that bring them into our lives, seem merely political or distant. Any violence, no matter how destructive, that stops short of killing or bears upon an inanimate proxy—whether original or copy, dispensable or invaluable—seems less visceral and thus less politically urgent than violence that places lives in jeopardy. 

Upon hearing that the Nazis were burning his books, Freud is supposed to have quipped (I cite from memory), “Now this is progress! Nowadays they only burn my books; in the Middle Ages, they would have burned me.” But Freud knew, and history has shown over and over again, that burning books—even “mere” copies of books—is not far at all from burning bodies; that up to and after death our bodies, just like inanimate objects, are burned, broken, crushed, defaced, or dismembered; and that the universality of death will never protect or save us from the singular ignominy of desecration and mistreatment. As the global response to the ISIS videos demonstrates, such desecration is today a much more effective political instrument than war and death. In order to consider this type of violence, perhaps we should “sympathize” with books and statues. Perhaps we already do so without realizing it!

The burning of the library at Alexandria, Egypt.

Yes, it feels we are doomed to burn the library again and again. I’m stuck on your phrase that what we’re seeing in this ISIS video is a “violence that should be considered equally if not more grave than violence against living human beings.” Sure, from an insurance standpoint human life is far more replaceable, but are you not wading into tricky ethical waters here?

Thank you for this question. You are right, I think, to be concerned about the ethical and political complexity of some of my statements. To be honest, when I was writing my book, literally every time I sat down to work on it, I would say to myself: “Can I really say this? Should I really be writing this?” In the end, obviously, I published the book, which implies that I stand behind my conclusions. It is sometimes necessary to commit to statements that take a provocative or counterintuitive form—even if, in the end, they have to be partially retracted, modified, or nuanced. So let’s clarify. Here is what I am NOT saying. I am not saying that human life is more replaceable than an Assyrian statue. Not for an instant do I think it would be legitimate to save a statue before saving a human (or even an animal) life—although I am certain that some people wouldn’t hesitate to sacrifice their own lives for the sake of a precious work of art. Accordingly, I am not saying that death is a negligible event; that killing is not a grievous and criminal act. On the contrary, I would say—against a long tradition of treating wartime as a state of exception—that even in war, even when killing is officially permitted in the name of a supposed higher good, killing always remains a crime; even then, it should be considered murder; and consequently that war, despite the long history of ideological and philosophical rationalizations that support its past and future use as a political instrument, is little—if any—more than a ritual of targeted assassination on a mass scale. 

Here, then, is what I am trying to say: Despite the fact that murder is a grievous act with irreparable consequences, it is no longer, today, a relevant measure of violence. Despite the finality of murder, it is not “the worst.” Sadly for all of us who witness and must inhabit a global society both damaged and structured by increasingly illegible mutations of violence, such as the forms of violence to which ISIS seeks to make us all helpless bystanders. My point—which comes from reflection on the ISIS videos and related atrocities such as the Taliban’s destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in March 2001—is both very simple and very frightening. Life comes to an end, violence does not. Murder is the name for an act of violence that comes to an end with the end of a life; that “wants” no more than to bring life to an end. As a result, the personal, social, political, historical, and philosophical preoccupation with death and the violence that brings it—a preoccupation that we call “mourning”—often blinds us to forms of violence that stop short of death, that continue after death, that disregard the distinction between the living and the dead, original and replica, or that simply want something other than destruction (rape, dismemberment, attacks upon the cultural and natural worlds). 

The phenomenon of ISIS shows how powerful acts that explicitly and deliberately do more than kill can be in today’s world. As we have all seen, such violence can be “worse” than killing, even when nonlethal, because it is radically asymmetrical; it is often exercised upon a lifeless or helpless (or helpless because lifeless) victim. Attacking a statue shows us that the deathly immobility of its body is no safeguard against atrocities; and any statue may thus figure—especially when it is included in a series of human victims—the vulnerability of the human body to violence that wants something more and other than death. What does ISIS really want? Since ISIS started to release its videos, many journalists have posed this question, echoing the concerns of readers and viewers worldwide. There are many possible answers, of course. But the question arises with such urgency in the first place, I think, because the group employs these forms of violence that disregard the tradition of war and death. In other words, this is not only a question about ISIS but a much broader question about the limits of violence in our world today. 

Incidentally, the same type of question might arise in response to a US drone strike. Despite or perhaps thanks to the much-vaunted precision of these strikes, killing becomes overkill; the speed and asymmetry of unmanned aerial vehicles reduces their living targets in advance to dead ducks. Drone warfare provokes such emotion precisely because of this excess and the questions that it raises. What does it mean to live and to die in a time when we can no longer rely upon death as a sort of compass to orient us within the global political landscape, to tell us where violence is coming from, where it is going, or when it will stop?

Steven Miller is Associate Professor of English at UB.