It seems a little tasteless to be too upset about ISIS’s capture of the Syrian city of Palmyra. Its Greco-Roman ruins are rocks, after all, and tearing down antiquity pales beside ISIS’s other behavior, like throwing gay men off buildings and burning POWs alive. But there is certain appropriateness that man’s most modern political creation may well wind up destroying the last civilized remnants of one of its oldest.
If ISIS wants to destroy Palmyra, of course, it can. The American campaign against it is becoming alarmingly similar to its campaign against Iran’s nuclear program — a serial procession of stout denial, lukewarm resistance, tacit acceptance and finally righteous acceptance.
Barring a massive deployment of U.S. ground forces to Iraq and Syria, there is probably no solution to ISIS short of essentially a Shiite-led genocide. Syrian President Bashar Assad, who is leading efforts to liberate Palmyra, favors a counterinsurgency strategy based on dropping barrels of rocks from helicopters. Nobody in this fight is exactly covering themselves with modernity.
A favorite theme of Michael Crichton, the pessimistic author of Jurassic Park, was that humanity’s moral progress had not kept up with its technological progress. As a result, there was a dangerous disparity between people’s ability to do something and their judgment of whether it should be done, and so they built dinosaurs that ate them. Crichton’s thesis might be true for certain medical advances and weapons systems, but perhaps even more so for our modern political movements like radical Islam.
If you think about the dimensions of states and the conduct of wars in the past, from Henry V to Hitler, conflict has become more savage as political groupings have grown larger. That is, a perverse effect of being able to communicate and organize and empathize with more and more people may be increased hostility towards the remainder.
ISIS controls a relatively small amount of territory. But the political phenomenon that spawned it — a particularly virulent strain of Islamism — is quite large, far larger than the various nationalisms that led to the 19th and 20th century’s wars. Those in turn were larger than the 18th century’s aristocracies and the monarchies which came before, and it is at least arguable that as each polity has enfranchised more people, humans have become more barbarous towards each other. The Napoleonic wars, after all, were not wars of extermination. The ISIS wars apparently are.
Believers in human progress will dispute this, and point to the declining death toll from war as proof of mankind’s small steps forward. That may be true. At least the later decades of the 20th century were less violent than the earlier ones. But it is striking that modern atrocities are often less organized and more barbarous than they used to be. Most of the genocides of the 20th century were committed by starvation, firing squad and gas chamber. Those of the 21st century have been committed by machete and rape.
Nor is it enough to say we should bridge that gap, and empathize more with our fellow man. The U.S. is fighting its third Iraq war because of the Kurds and the Yazidis, a minor sect that had never before interfaced with the American hive-mind in any shape, form or tweet. Last August, the White House started paying attention to Iraq in earnest because the Yazidis were trapped on a mountain with every indication that if they fell into the hands of ISIS they would die horribly. It’s not clear what empathy would have brought us. And since Americans, as part of our liberal Western tradition, are trying to use our superpower to bring justice to the world, we began to conduct airstrikes shortly after.
As it happened, those were measures that Assad had escaped a year earlier when he was gassing his own citizens. Obama held off bombing Syria for a variety of reasons, but there must surely have been something reassuring about Assad committing his genocide in a very 20th century fashion. The Kaiser used gas! And he wasn’t a maniac. Assad is a bastard, but you can work with him. It’s awfully reassuring to have your villains bounded so nicely by their humanity. There’s no such reassurance with ISIS.
ISIS is a horror, because it is both new and old. It is one more step back toward the pre-civilization before Palmyra. Modernity was not supposed to be temporary, and yet somehow it is. Secretary of State John Kerry called Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine 19th century behavior, and he was right. But give Putin credit for only going back one century, not a dozen. Admirable restraint, you might say, for a man ahead of the curve.
It is thus quite fitting that ISIS has captured Palmyra. Yes, its troops may destroy the city’s Roman ruins, as the Taliban did to the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan, and that would certainly be tragic. Those statues are a remnant, after all, of a civilization that stood for man’s first attempt to move humanity forward out of barbarism. But it would also be quite appropriate for Palmyra’s remaining Roman icons to be destroyed on our quick journey back.
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