One of the things humans like to do with their lives is make some sort of mark on the world. Sand castles on the beach; initials in a new piece of sidewalk; graffiti . . . a statue, a temple, a tower.
There are two ways of making this sort of mark: creation and destruction. The second is, obviously, quicker.
It takes a lot of time, and work, and skill to create a Bamiyan Buddha, a Lion of Al-lat, a Babri Masjid, a World Trade Center. It takes much less to smash them. Obliteration is a shortcut to fame and a certain kind of glory. Fame and glory can be ways to find meaning in life, to feel that one has lived to some purpose. There are always ways to think of a particular statue or temple or office building as a pollutant or a poison, so there’s always a way to see their destruction as heroic, purifying, glorious.
The Islamic State destroyed the Lion of Al-lat in Palmyra, Syria, on June 27. It was a stylized statue of a male lion with a crouching gazelle between its front paws that had been built into a wall of the temple of the goddess Al-lat. It was made from limestone in the early first century CE, stood ten feet tall, and weighed fifteen tons. Syria’s antiquities director, Maamoun Abdelkarim, told Agence France Presse that the statue had been covered with a metal plate and sandbags to protect it from fighting, “but we never imagined that IS would come to the town to destroy it.”
On May 16, 1943, the German SS blew up the Great Synagogue of Warsaw as the last act in the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto by the Nazis. The synagogue, at the time of its opening on September 26, 1878, was the largest synagogue in the world. SS-Gruppenführer Jürgen Stroop later recalled the thrill of the event:
What a marvelous sight it was. A fantastic piece of theater. My staff and I stood at a distance. I held the electrical device which would detonate all the charges simultaneously. . . . I glanced over at my brave officers and men, tired and dirty, silhouetted against the glow of the burning buildings. After prolonging the suspense for a moment, I shouted: “Heil Hitler” and pressed the button. With a thunderous, deafening bang and a rainbow burst of colors, the fiery explosion soared toward the clouds, an unforgettable tribute to our triumph over the Jews. The Warsaw Ghetto was no more. The will of Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler had been done.*
On December 6, 1992, a large crowd of Hindu nationalists destroyed the sixteenth-century Babri Masjid (the Mosque of Babur) in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, India, in an effort to reclaim what they considered the birthplace of the Hindu god Rama. The mosque was constructed in 1527 on the orders of the first Mughal emperor of India, probably on the site of a temple to Rama. It was one of the largest mosques in Uttar Pradesh. The demolition triggered riots that killed more than two thousand people.
You’ll notice these are all religious buildings or monuments, and there are of course countless other examples I could list. There’s nothing surprising in that, given the way tribal loyalties—a.k.a. “identities” or “communities”—tend to focus on The One True Religion versus the detested Other. Religions are also good at sucking up all the loose cash, so they can afford to build lavish monuments to put the fear of god into the populace. The more lavish and fearsome the monument, the more alluring it is to the enemy. Costly display is useful for social control, but it’s also a target.
It isn’t always the other religion whose statues and minarets are smashed; often it’s a rival sect of the same religion that obliterates the icons. The return to purity is a recurring theme in many religions, from Jesus knocking over the tables of the money changers to Henry Tudor looting the abbeys. Ziauddin Sardar wrote in the New York Times last year about the destruction of nearly all of ancient Mecca at the behest of a bizarre combination of iconoclasm and modernist commercialism:
The initial phase of Mecca’s destruction began in the mid-1970s, and I was there to witness it. Innumerable ancient buildings, including the Bilal mosque, dating from the time of the Prophet Muhammad, were bulldozed. The old Ottoman houses, with their elegant mashrabiyas—latticework windows—and elaborately carved doors, were replaced with hideous modern ones. Within a few years, Mecca was transformed into a “modern” city with large multilane roads, spaghetti junctions, gaudy hotels and shopping malls.
This was like any old city around the world in which the beautiful old is crushed and hauled to the landfill to make way for the ugly new, except that it’s Wahhabism that’s calling the shots:
The only other building of religious significance in the city is the house where the Prophet Muhammad lived. During most of the Saudi era it was used first as a cattle market, then turned into a library, which is not open to the people. But even this is too much for the radical Saudi clerics who have repeatedly called for its demolition. The clerics fear that, once inside, pilgrims would pray to the prophet, rather than to God—an unpardonable sin.
It’s the familiar hatred of the visible and the real that most religious fanatics share. Never mind the beautiful flowers or sky or human face; fix your mind on the invisible god you will never meet instead. Focus on the imagined beauty inside your head, and in order to see it more plainly, tear down all the real beauty that’s right in front of you cluttering things up. As a bonus, the local residents get to watch the demolition. Everybody loves a good demolition.
The destruction of the twin towers was the ultimate spectacle, aimed at a global audience. Pity the poor brawlers of World War II, who had no television or Internet to display their explosions to the world. How Hitler would have loved to have full-color movies of the Blitz, broadcast live. See Coventry Cathedral burn! Watch as London goes up like a bonfire; gape as the ships explode and sink. But no, poor bastard, all he had was grainy black-and-white newsreel footage shown in movie theaters days after the action. Hitler achieved a massive body count, but it was Osama bin Laden who got the real thrills. It almost seems unfair.
Destruction and violence are the quickest, easiest equalizers we have. In the long run, it’s better to promote equality through ideas and arguments and models of living, to contrast peace and human rights with force and hierarchy via example rather than explosions. But people don’t live in the long run. We all live in the short run, and we want results now, or at least soon, when we can see them and get the good of them. It’s now that the wrong people have all the money and power, now that our religion is on the defensive, now that injustice eats at the best restaurants while we rummage through dumpsters. We’ve waited for years, we’ve worked through the system and gotten nowhere . . . but we can at least get our revenge.
*Kazimierz Moczarski, Conversations with an Executioner (New York: Prentice Hall, 1981).