IN MARCH OF 2001, the Taliban destroyed two of the cultural sites that remained in war-torn Afghanistan: the twin statues of Buddha at Bamiyan. Carved into the side of a cliff in the sixth century, the sculptures, 115 and 174 feet tall respectively, stood for 1500 years. They survived Genghis Khan, the British, the Soviets, and countless other invasions, only to be blown to bits by the Taliban, who saw them, idiotically, as false idols.
This was the subject of one of the first columns I wrote for LARGEREGO, my original blog:
It’s like a scene from a Jerry Bruckheimer summer blockbuster: turbaned terrorists in military get-ups train anti-aircraft missiles on two colossal stone Buddhas, mutter praises to Allah, and blow the centuries-old statues to smithereens.
Only it’s happening not in Hollywood, but in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. And it’s quite real.
The destruction of the aforementioned statues, as well as thousands of smaller ones not hewn into rock, is a direct order from Taliban Supreme Commander Mullah Mohammed Omar, who makes Saddam Hussein look like an art therapist.
“We are not against culture,” the foreign minister of a government that prohibits literature, film, photography, television, dance, theater, painting, and now, emphatically, sculpture, told The Associated Press, “but we don't believe in these things. They are against Islam.”
The mandate prompted an international outcry. UNESCO condemned the Taliban and sent an emissary to stay the razing. Buddhist monks led vocal rallies (!) in India and Nepal in protest. Even leaders in such bastions of religious and cultural tolerance as Iran and Cambodia criticized Mullah’s decree.
Taliban’s Minister of Culture and Information, who we presume focuses more on the latter, told the world that the Taliban was making quick work of the two statues. “It is easier to destroy than to build,” he assured the New York Times.
More recently, a different radical Islamic sect laid waste to another important cultural heritage site, this time at Palmyra, Syria—capital of the Palmyrene Empire, which broke from the Roman Empire in the fourth century under the leadership of the Empress Zenobia. In 2015, ISIS there destroyed the Temple of Bal, the Roman Theater, and the Lion of Al-lāt.
In both cases, the civilized world loudly, uniformly, and rightly condemned the wanton destruction. One simply does not go around blowing up cultural heritage sites for no good reason. Even the Nazis drew the line there.
It is profoundly disturbing to witness destruction of this kind. There is a reason that the fire at Notre Dame inspired more donations than more consequential and destructive conflagrations elsewhere. These sites speak across the centuries to the wonder, and to the frailty, of humankind.
Enter Donald John Trump. To the surprise of no one who has seen pictures of the “Habsburg Walmart” decor of Mar-a-Lago, Trump has zero appreciation of culture. He lacks even a modicum of artistic sensibility. To him, art is only about ostentation, because ostentation, in his myopic view, signifies money. This is what made his threat to target Iranian cultural heritage sites so upsetting:
It is one thing to kill a nefarious and psychotic enemy of the United States and the Western world. It is quite another to double down on this by expressly targeting mosques, museums, and temples. Even for a soulless buffoon like Donald John Trump, however, this was a bridge too far. Because there’s no question that, were it up to him, he’d do it. Insofar as he’s capable of imagination, Trump sees himself as Titus, commanding officer of the Roman Siege of Jerusalem, laying waste to the Second Temple.
Reality check: Titus was the son of the all-powerful and very bad-ass emperor, Vespasian, and had authority to do whatever the fuck he wanted; Judaea was a Roman province in open revolt. Whatever his kingly delusions, Trump is a duly elected (with Russian help) president of a democracy, and does not enjoy carte blanche. Iran is not an American colony. The targeting of cultural heritage sites is a war crime. Our military commanders will not follow an illegal order.
This is not going to happen. These threats are just more of the usual Trumpian bluster—empty, craven, desperate, and above all provocative, intended to get us all talking about something, anything else but his impeachment and his seditious crimes. Although, given the impossibly high stakes, we are right to sound the alarm bells.
That Donald John Trump is being increasingly reckless should be no surprise. He has another year and change before he is indicted by the State of New York immediately upon his exit from the White House, if he lasts that long. He once predicted that Barack Obama would start a war with Iran to assure re-election—that was, as with all offensive Trump tweets, pure projection.
Shed no tears for Qasem Soleimani, a bloodthirsty butcher with a handsome and well-trimmed beard. Indeed, the hit may well go down as the sole positive accomplishment of this odious administration. Give credit where it’s due. But his death has let the figurative djini out of the bottle. Unsurprisingly, MAGA Nation loved the flex—but the possibility of backfire here is enormous. The historian Heather Cox Richardson summed it up best in this morning’s “Letter from an American:”
Once again, Trump knows his base, which has rallied around him, cheering on the death of a man almost none of them had heard of before the attack, dismissing concerns about the way in which Trump went about the attack and what the future might bring…
But here’s where things suddenly get tricky.
In America, Trump could pull off this manipulation of reality by narrative, because there have so far been few repercussions of his fantasies that regular Americans could see clearly. Even the tariffs that have hurt the nation so badly have made little headway in the media, as Trump has continued to drive the headlines with his own erratic actions. And he could get away with it with our allies who, until recently, humored him. But Iran and Iraq, and China and Russia, are not going to enable Trump; they are forcing Trump’s narrative to deal with reality. The attack on Soleimani has sown confusion here at home as that reality threatens to burst the bubble Trump has constructed.
This time, it’s pretty hard to deny that the would-be Emperor is buck naked.