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The news from Iraq these past few weeks has been horrific. Most of us have either seen, or heard descriptions of, the pictures of the massacres. If for some reason you haven’t, consider yourself lucky: I was prepared for the blood, but it’s the boyish smiles I can’t un-remember.
In addition to the human carnage, there’s also been a consistent pattern of Islamists destroying buildings dating back centuries — even millennia — that they feel to be blasphemous. Late last month, for instance, they destroyed the shrine believed to be the tomb of the Prophet Jonah, as well as a couple of dozen other religious sites and monuments. These aren’t matters of collateral damage or simply the casualties of war: these are intentional operations involving dynamite and sledgehammers.
The practice, it seems, is typical for ISIS and al-Qaeda. Jihadis blew-up the al-Askari Mosque — one of the holier sites to the Shia — in both 2006 and in 2007. The Taliban, too, dynamited the Buddhas of Bamiyan, probably their most infamous action before their association with 9/11. It was no small effort, either: the operation was expensive and took weeks to complete.
Destruction, of course, is hardly unique to Jihadis: Westerners have pulled things down, blown others up, and practiced all kinds of murder and rapacity with intent throughout our history. With a few exceptions, however, this will to destroy was always accompanied by a desire to create. The Roman destructions of Carthage and Jerusalem — to take two notable, but hardly unique, examples — were awful, but should be seen in the context of what they also built. Heck, even the Nazis were as famous for stealing artistic treasures as they were for burning books.
I’m no expert this, but the problem doesn’t seem to be Islam, or even Sunni extremism: Muslims have created and celebrated beautiful art and architecture — including most of those being destroyed now — for centuries and continue to do so today. Even the Saudis and Emirs, awful as they are, are able to combine their religion with doing something constructive (though I’ll refrain from commenting on their taste). Rather, the problem seems to be the Jihadi’s narrow, barbaric, iconoclysm married an equally nasty and violent millenarianism that calls for death and damnation on everything but itself.
The good news is that the very thing that animates these monsters handicaps them in the long term. ISIS has no capability of building new weapons on its own, and their ability to purchase new materials will almost certainly be handicapped by their celebrations of their barbarity. But they can’t build anything: “decapitating little girls with a knife” and “blowing-up ancient shrines” aren’t job skills that translate easily to other fields and happen to be exactly what attracts people to ISIS and what gets them up in the morning. The money they stole will eventually run out, the oil refinery they seized was back in Iraqi hands last I checked (and severely damaged), and ransom and thievery can only get one so far.
That doesn’t mean they’re not dangerous or that the world should shrug its shoulders at what they’re doing: barbarians can cause enormous amounts of harm if left unchecked, as we’ve seen so many times before. It does mean that we’ve got a huge moral, economic, military, and aesthetic advantage over them: we can build things and they can’t.
Image credit: The Telegraph.