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Take a look at the image on right: that’s the surface of Pluto, as rendered by the New Horizons probe earlier this week. In less than 24 hours, the probe will zip past the diminutive little world, snapping pictures that will put this one to shame (though, sadly, of only one of its sides). Already, we’ve nicknamed features on Pluto that we didn’t know existed and found new mysteries to uncover. Best of all, we’ll have new data to pour over and marvel at for months, if not years, because of the incredibly slow bandwidth available to the probe. So while that image will never be among the best taken of Pluto, it will always be special because it was among the first.
Now, contrast that never-before-seen-by-human-eyes image with the one to the left. That is the Lion of al-Lat, a 1st century statue that had survived 2,000 years of war and history — until being intentionally demolished by the Islamic State last month. This is just one example of IS’s spree of destruction, which follows the similar iconoclasm of the Taliban, who famously destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan. That picture is important because, sadly, it is among the last ever taken of it.
It’s worth noting that the Islamic State is destroying icons that have not only survived under Islam for more than a millennia, but that were largely cared for and cherished until these atavistic barbarians arrived on the scene. When modern Islamists, however, find themselves with excess explosives and a desire to make headlines, they demolish ancient artifacts, stealing them from history and ensuring they are never again seen by human eyes. Given the same resources, however, we send a piano-sized computer and camera to see things never before viewed by human eyes — and to share those pictures with every human being on the planet.
Cultivating an advanced society is about much more than tending to artifacts and exploring the heavens, of course. But if anyone has need for a quick reminder of the traits that distinguish civilization from barbarism, he need look little further.