On Intersections of Land, Law, and Literature, from Primitive Territories to the Post-National Future

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Unsettling Ethnonationalism: Cataluña and a Fragmenting Europe (September 29, 2015)

Reading about the recent regional elections in Spain, in which a pair of political parties advocating the secession of Cataluña from the nation-state of Spain won some 48% of the vote, I had to wonder if Europe is going to soon come apart at the seams. (You can read about these elections in BBC’s coverage, here).  ; the BBC also provides an excellent summation of the Cataluña [aka Catalonia] issue here). Coming on the heels of last year’s referendum on Scottish Independence, the Catalonian independence movement seems to echo a larger sentiment of division within the European Union (a topic on which I have written before here).

As you might gather from my frequent posting on the subject (say, here, here, here, and here), I think the Scottish referendum of September 2014 was a crucial moment in the history of intra-European nationalism—and its co-optation by bald capitalism. While many may find the idea of smaller countries breaking free from greater nation-state along ethnic or regional lines stirring, I find it all quite troubling—especially when profit margins seem to be a crucial part of the picture.  However much proponents of separation may couch Scottish (or Catalonian) separatism in the rhetoric of freedom and independence, it is clear that financial motives are a major, if not the crucial, driving force: much as Scottish separatists speak of wanting to take control of North Sea oil revenues, so do many in the Catalonian separatist movements speak of their region as a financial center that is not able to control its massive revenues, which end up being distributed across Spain.

I suppose that one reason I find myself skeptical of the separatist movements in Scotland and Catalonia is my experience with efforts at secession in cities—particularly my own experience growing up in Los Angeles. At a number of points in my lifetime, citizens of the San Fernando Valley region of Los Angeles, where I grew up, sought to secede from Los Angeles. Such secessionists cited precisely the sorts of things Catalonian groups cite—the idea that tax revenue from their region was going out elsewhere, and that the region has an integrity as a place that should be broken off from the rest of a larger unity. Since by Los Angeles law any secession requires a vote of all Los Angeles citizens, San Fernando secession efforts have not succeeded—leaving only a sense of bitterness in those secessionists who feel that “their” taxes shouldn’t go over “there” (“over the hill,” as they say, into downtown Los Angeles, which is perceived as having much more poverty). (For a nice commentary on San Fernando Valley secessionism, see Ryan Reft’s KCET column, here.)

I always felt quite saddened by such secessionist movements, which seemed to me be selfish to the point of crassness. The pattern of fragmentation in many cities—whether it be through “white flight” patterns in which people, often citing the need for “better schools,” vacate “urban” areas for suburbs, or the creation of smaller towns that are separated from larger urban areas, often in the name of better services or schools—often leaves me with a feeling of sorrow about how readily self-interest can drive people to alienate themselves—literally—from their neighbors, to produce smaller and smaller areas, in which there is increasingly less socio-economic (and sometimes ethnic) diversity (it’s called “white flight” for a reason, after all, even if those who flee are often more diverse than the label implies). (See Alana Semuel’s recent Atlantic article for some alarming analysis about recent intensification of “white flight” patterns. For a counter-view of relevant trends, see William H. Frey’s Brookings Institution study that sees more diversity in suburbs).

Seeing what is happening in Scotland and Catalonia, I wonder if this is simply the same sort of profit-focused fragmentation on an ethnonational rather than urban scale. It is hard to imagine if there might ever be an end to the possible fragmentation of European states, if such categories as economic self-interest and ethnic or regional solidarity are all one needs to invoke—after all, is there any nation-state in which all regions are at all times equally profitable, and in which no area ever pays a single cent—or should I say euro—more than another, on average? Moreover, the EU itself is under intense pressure from nationalist reactions to a larger federalism, as I have written about both in terms of the rise of Syriza and in the rise of Euroskeptics. Division and self-interest are the clarion calls everywhere, in a Europe that is profoundly riven by nationalist and regionalist forces (indeed, it is not surprising that a coordinated response to the refugee crisis currently affecting Europe is sorely lacking).

As I determined in my own unstable responses to the Scottish independence referendum (as someone who studies Scottish literature and history with gusto, I am very susceptible to the view that Scotland is exceptional), I realize that, in the end, I find federalism far more viable as a disposition than what I see as its opposite—ehtnonationalism. Ethnonationalist energies shun the difficult task of consensus, speaking directly to self-interest. Mixed with neoliberal economic self-justification, ehtnonationalism can surely begin to do lots more work of division once it begins to operate, and the Catalonian vote suggests that such a fever is beginning to spread rapidly throughout Europe.

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Fernandez’s Promise to Repatriate Objects and the Shadow of ISIS’s Symbolic Violence (August 25, 2015)

As I have often pondered the staggering quantity of artifacts that were most probably pillaged from other countries in the museums of powerful countries, I was pleased to read the other day BBC reporting about Argentinian President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s announcement that Argentina will at some point return thousands of artifacts to Peru and Ecuador.  Fernandez is, it seems to me, not speaking far off the mark when (as the BBC reports) she describes the action of “restoring the cultural wealth of countries such as Ecuador and Peru” as “something unusual, really special.” The article closes with a recent American example of such return of cultural items—namely, Yale Unviersity’s decision to return “dozens” of items taken from Macchu Pichhu by Hiram Bingham. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-29750832 (you can read more about Yale’s return of the items in Diane Carson’s excellent—and wonderfully titled—NPR piece, “Finders Not Keepers: Yale Returns Artifacts to Peru”).

The number of cultural “treasures” that were most likely at some point plundered from somewhere else and eventually made their way to museums is truly mind-boggling—as virtually any visit reminds one. In my most recent trip to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, I remember thinking that at a certain point the scale of the collections of Egyptian artifacts becomes so great as to risk a kind of obscenity—though not as excessive, as say, the British Museum’s holdings, which seem to me to be so vast as to almost daring the visitor to question the propriety of so much material display. There are, of course, famous examples of Western countries holding the goods of other Western countries (the Elgin Marbles being the most well known), but the holdings of cultural artifacts from New World, African, or colonized parts of Asia by former imperial powers always makes me the most uncomfortable (particularly when it involves mummies or sarcophagi, which most emphatically were not meant to be unearthed for display to casual tourists). Museums, after all, are often the expression, simultaneously, of the great material power of some civilizations, and the vulnerability of so many other cultures.

But I am also sometimes uncomfortable with the rhetoric of belonging that equates those controlling particular territory with rights over cultural objects that can be traced to that location. For the most extreme of examples of the problems with such a view, we have only to look to ISIS and its religiously motivated  destruction of ancient artifacts in territory it controls, the most recent instance being its destruction of the Temple of Baalshamin in Palmyra, Syria (see the BBC’s reporting on this here for the most recent updates). As I have written of here, ISIS understands completely the power of museums and the preservation of things deemed to be treasures—and it is calculatingly releasing precisely such energy in the targeted destruction of some such objects. ISIS’s deployment of symbolic violence, which I have discussed elsewhere, is clearly a vital part of its agenda: its destruction of sites and objects associated with any religion separate from its extreme form of Islam materially encodes its efforts to clear a space for its eponymous vision of an Islamic State. Such religiously justified iconcoclasm has clearly been effective as a form of psychological warfare: to put it plainly, such actions have freaked the international community out, presenting ISIS as a group that is truly beyond the pale. As I have written about here and here, ISIS’s territorial ambitions are central to its strategy, as it unsettles international politics by becoming a player within the politics of state-making. ISIS would certainly stand as Exhibit A for the argument against seeing cultural treasures as belonging to the lands where they originated. While one could argue that the international community (however that might be conceived) could make exceptions in extreme cases such as ISIS, it is easy to imagine that such a rationale could be invoked on flimsy grounds.

It is important not to cite the Elgin Marbles case as an example of the latter point, by the way: as this British Museum statement makes clear, the popular view that the museum has argued that Greek authorities could not properly care for the statues, which were removed from the Parthenon, is a myth.  As the remarkably full and straightforward British Museum statement makes clear, public value—the ability of people to see such items in the optimal conditions of a museum—are the rimary justification for not repatriating00 to use the rhetoric of cultural authenticity and territorialism—the marbles. I must admit that I find the British Museum statement remarkable for its honesty and for its straightforwardness about its rationale for keeping what it deems to be some 30% of the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum.  I count myself among many who learns much about the world by visiting museums; I try to visit museums whenever I have time while visiting another city. While the guilt of appropriated goods is always an element in the experience, there is also the positive element of the cosmopolitan, as the museum visitor both experiences signs of other worlds while visiting an institutional site that shows such signs and their cultures are valued. Such a powerful transnational experience is often a refreshing departure from the suffocating atmosphere of nationalism and territorialism in a world where so many fight over land and objects, with the accumulation of wealth and prestige being the primary motivation.

Perhaps it is ISIS and its unsettling use of symbolic violence that is destabilizing all of my recent reactions to questions about museums and cultural values. President Fernandez’s decision surely should be welcomed, and it would surely be nice to see more such actions being taken in cases where clearly plundered items are returned to countries whose populations have clear connections to past groups. However, it is vital to avoid assuming reductively direct connections of cultural artifacts to current cultures (which often consigns them to a present pastness, as scholars such as Johannes Fabian [in Time and the Other] and Kathleen Davis [in “Time behind the Veil” in Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s The Postcolonial Middle Ages] have argued) to past groups, and it also seems vital to realize that the alternative to the repatriation of items is not always simply shameless plundering and vulgar display.

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Eroding the One-Percent’s Territorialism: California Coastal Access (Part II) (July 17, 2015)

Being both a native Californian and one consistently suspicious to the various antidemocratic machinations of entrenched socio-economic elites, I was delighted to read Ann O’Neill’s reporting on the opening of public beach access to Carbon Beach West in Malibu. Territorialism, it is important to remember, is not just the province of nation-states or violent street gangs, but occurs in everyday contexts—namely, whenever someone or some organization seeks to restrict or control access to some area (I here follow Robert Sack’s classic formulation in Human Territoriality). As readers of this blog will already know from my discussion of this subject last year, a simultaneously fascinating and grotesque case of systematic territorialism has long existed in California coasts: despite clear laws determining that the beach is a public space to which access cannot be restricted, mostly rich landowners seeking to dominate public spaces have often used various ruses to control access to public spaces.

Thanks to the California courts, territorialist actions by shameless rich landowners to flout clear laws about public beach access will be less viable in Carbon Beach West, which has, tellingly, become known as Billionaires Beach

In her article, Ann O’Neill wonderfully captures the ugly classism that lies behind rich territorialists who have sought to seal off common, public space either by tricking (through such deceptions as fictitious “no parking” signs) or intimidating (through security guards) would-be beachgoers: O’Neill writes of the “riff-raff” and “hoi polloi” whom the super-rich sought to remove from what they treated as their “private backyard.” O’Neill gives a wonderful survey of the recent legal history of protecting coastal access as a public good, with conservationist interests aligning with a sense of fairness and democracy.

With such a legal counter to the ugliness of what the Occupy Movement has taught us to call the One Percent, one realizes that our legal system is not always, as it sometimes seems, only aligned with the rich and well connected. Of course, California’s coastal laws are fairly singular—and coastal access is often indeed the space of private backyards for the super-rich (now that I live near the opposite coast, I have seen that East Coast sensibilities are strikingly unlike those of California). But now is not the time to dwell on the grotesque territorialism of the super-rich. Much as I discussed earlier when I wrote on the wonderful techniques activists can sometimes employ to strike back at elitist territorialists, I think it is best now simply, like the conservationists celebrating in O’Neill’s article, simply enjoy today’s legal victory as the proverbial day at the beach.


Aleppo and ISIS’s State Ambitions: World Heritage on the Territorial Horizon (June 10, 2015)

As others have noted, perhaps the most striking thing about the rise of ISIS (aka the Islamic State) is that it is fundamentally motivated by territorial, rather than merely terrorist ambitions. While Islamist groups such as Al-Qaeda have, as Stuart Elden has shown in his indispensable Terror and Territory: The Spatial Extent of Sovereignty,  always demonstrated sophisticated territorial strategies in linking specific operations with a larger thematics of an aggressive Caliphate (see especially chapter two), the Islamic State is remarkable in being singularly devoted to explicit state-construction in a militarily expanding zone. ISIS seems to me to be combining the expansive energies of conquest that we normally associate with empire with the efforts to stabilize and legitimize a territory that we associate with nation-building.

ISIS’s original name, as I have discussed here before,  strikingly reveals its territorial ambitions by localizing its proto-state in a space that defies the boundaries of the currently accepted nation-states of at least Syria and Iraq, with the ambiguity of the Arabic term “al-Sham” possibly signifying the much larger area understood in the West as “the Levant.” The movement to the name of Islamic State radically intensifies the possible territorial ambition of the group, since it suggests that its caliphate may well be an expanding entity limited only by the ambitions of its militarized version of Islam (see, for example, Al Jazeera’s reporting on this ambitious name-change; I also discuss this here).

Recent reports of ISIS celebrating the one-year anniversary of their taking of Mosul hammers the organization’s territorial ambitions home, indeed. As the BBC reports, ISIS has organized banners throughout the city, decorating buildings—and in so doing highlighting not just its control of the city, but also projecting a sense of long duration—of the kind of permanent holding of territory that we associate with nation-states. While ISIS may well not, as Liz Sly reports in the Washington Post, be effective in actually running a state, it is remarkable that such state-building remains a key part, if not indeed the raison d’être of the group: while Quinn Mecham’s systematic study of state-like development by ISIS in the Washington Post highlights many of the organization’s limits,  it also shows clearly the group’s ambitions to create a stable, working state that would become part of the static collection of world nations.

When it comes to projecting an image of permanence that defies the previous trend of the chances that ISIS may soon take over Aleppo—which, Wikipedia informs us, is “one of the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world”—is especially striking. (See Lina Sinjab’s BBC reporting on ISIS’s current chances in taking Aleppo.)  ISIS appears to be more poised than ever to make a play for Aleppo, with, as Anne Barnard of the New York Times reports, possible support from Syrian government forces. The profound antiquity and cultural richness of Aleppo may make one worry, given ISIS’s predilection for the iconoclastic destruction of historical objects and even sites about which I have written here and here, that much of the rich “world heritage” in the World Heritage http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/21 city of Aleppo will be destroyed (or, as Heather Pringle’s National Geographic suggests, sold off) by ISIS (though, given the fact that the Battle of Aleppo has been raging on since July 19, 2012, it is not clear how much of Aleppo’s archaeological and artistic treasures are currently left to destroy or sell).

However, simply holding Aleppo might be the most symbolically powerful move made by ISIS. Aleppo, after all, has been held by numerous groups: as the UNESCO site tells us, “Hittites, Assyrians, Akkadians, Greeks, Romans, Umayyads, Ayyubids, Mameluks and Ottomans” have all “left their stamp on the city.”  In adding its name to that UNESCO list of temporary—if however long-lived masters of Aleppo, ISIS may doing its most significant work yet in installing itself in world consciousness as a state rather than an insurgency.

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Russian Crusaders in Ukraine: An Unsettling Reminder of Western Religious Nationalism (May 25, 2015)

Since I have recently discussed how eerily events in ISIS recall events in the First Crusade about which I happen to be reading for a scholarly project,  I could not help but be taken aback by seeing this theater of uncanny resemblance shift suddenly north and east. In this chilling BBC article by Tim Whewell, some Russian volunteers describe their rationale for fighting in the civil war in eastern Ukraine as a need to take part in a “holy war” aimed at recreating Russian “Empire.” It is hard to imagine a less comforting sentiment if one hopes that the violence in Eastern Ukraine might abide anytime soon: the logic of holy war and the idea of stopping the violence “only when the job’s done,” as the Pavel Rasta interviewed by Whewell says. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-30518054 Getting a “job…done,” if one is, as I am, currently reading and thinking about the First Crusade, a very alarming phrase. Pavel here explicitly links himself to the logic of those engaged in the First Crusade, describing Donetsk as “Jerusalem” and the civil warriors there as engaged in “holy war.”

If the “job” of the Frist Crusaders was to take Jerusalem, to incorporate it into the control of a larger (Western) Christendom, then its conclusion was horrifying, in a mass atrocity on a truly historical scale—the Crusaders’ sacking of Jerusalem on July 15, 1099, in which warriors bent upon holy war slaughtered indiscriminately virtually all of the population of Jerusalem, not discriminating between warrior or civilian, between man or woman, adult or child. (On the sacking of Jerusalem, see Thomas Asbridge’s The First Crusade, where he dubs it “one of the most extraordinary and horrifying events of the medieval age” (316).  It is also important to note that the religiously zealous Crusaders did not simply erupt in violence in sacking Jerusalem: as is well known, they killed a sickeningly large number of Jewish non-combatants in what were the first pogroms, while making their way to the Middle East [see Susan Jacoby’s New York Times discussion of this], and also killed numerous Muslims and Eastern Christians while making their way, sometimes engaging in sieges and often having to forage when supplies ran out, to Jerusalem).

Pavel is, of course, just a Russian volunteer, and so it would be wrong to link his explicit statements with the motives of, say, the Russian government. But Whewell’s framing of the interview as offering a rare insight into Russian (that is, rather than Ukrainian) volunteers in the Eastern Ukrainian insurgency is vital: we can see here the motivations of many of those non-military individuals who have been moving into what has become a regional war-zone. Much of what drove the First Crusade was the religious zeal of those who were not from the military classes: what was originally a request from the Byzantine Emperor Alexius for a contingent of military men to assist in fending off encroaching Seljuk Turks ballooned, after Pope Urban II’s infamous November 27 sermon at Clermont, into a massive movement of individuals—in the scores of thousands—into the Middle East, all bent on just the sort of “holy war” Whewell reads into ordinary Russians’ self-sacrificial decision to enter into Eastern Ukraine in a desire to join a fight that here looks like nothing less than a religiously zealous Russian nationalism.

As Whewell argues, from the perspective of Russian volunteers, the fight in Eastern Ukraine is part of a kind of defensive aggression enacted by a Russia surrounded by hostile Western forces. Russian imperial ambitions are most clearly part of their operations in Ukraine, which comes, of course, after the notoriously well-orchestrated and executed annexation of the (formerly?) Ukrainian territory Crimea. As I have discussed before, such Russian imperialism and nationalism has been a key to the conflicts in Ukraine.

Russia is hardly unique in holding such ambitions (indeed, America, the United Kingdom, France, and many other Western countries were not just historically, but remain, in my view, imperial nations)—nor is Russia unique in fomenting notions of “holy war” (just witness right-wing rhetoric in the United States since 9/11; American Pavels would not be hard to find). Western biases also need to be counteracted to clearly analyze the situation in the Ukrainian civil war. I think, for example, that the Western media has usually presented a quite biased version of the initial events leading to the explicit unrest in Ukraine (the ousting of Viktor Yanukovych was consistently presented in the West as a righteous and democratic revolution, when it could just as easily have been presented as a violent and anti-democratic coup: revolutions, after all, are usually in the eyes of the beholders). In my view, the religious and nationalist zeal of Pavel is not chilling because it is uniquely Russian, but is in fact troubling because it recalls the rhetoric of so much Western rhetoric—not just in the premodern First Crusade, but in the tendency, for example, of many modern commentators to speak of a global war against Islam, or to use the rhetoric of defense against invasion to discuss immigration. Americans don’t like to hear such criticism, even when it refers to such distant events as the Crusades: witness the fierce reaction to President Obama’s quite reasonable reminder to Western audiences that such violent episodes as the Crusades, the Inquisition, or the African slave-trade show that the West is not insulated from a violence and barbarism often projected only onto the Islamic other (see, for example, Juliet Eilperin’s initial Washington Post reporting on the incident).

From some perspectives, there is so much continuity between Russia and Ukraine, as I have argued before, that it takes some effort to create a sharp and violent distinction. From Whewell’s article, it seems, alas, that what serves so often throughout history as a force of violent division, religious zeal, is energizing the territorialist fight in Ukraine—and religion and nationalism are rarely anything but a volatile mix. I hope that cooler heads prevail there, soon—for I quake to think what can happen as people like Pavel work to get their “job…done.” 

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Keeping Lands Green by Keeping Them Ours: Gerry Rising on Federal-to-State Land Transfers (May 24, 2015)

We often think of territorial issues as occurring merely between national states and those entities who would join that group. National states, for example, often fight over disputed land areas (such as, as I have written about here, the Senkaku / Diaoyu Islands controversy), and there can even be tensions about states creating new lands, such as recent US-China tensions (see this Reuters article)  about land reclamation in the South China sea demonstrate. And, of course, the national territorial desires of would-be sovereign states are very well known just about everywhere, in our territorially unstable political globe—whether it be in the numerous Native American would-be nations within the United States, a restless Scotland yearning to be free, a Palestinian state seeking to shore up its independent status, or transnational Kurdish communities dreaming of establishing a stable Kurdistan.

Territorial issues, however, are also intra-national—and the workings of the system of jurisdictions within any state often has intense material consequences. As Gerry Rising makes clear in his excellent Buffalo News article, Don’t Transfer Land to Individual States,  land management is one key area where such decisions can have great material significance.

After summarizing federal practices of surveying and managing land in the US, Rising refers to efforts, known as the Sagebrush Rebellion, to transfer control of lands out of federal control. As Rising notes, this “wise use” movement was really about privatization—namely, a movement governed by the “extraction industries: lumbering and mining.”  Recent efforts to transfer lands from the federal to the state level (where it could, of course, then be transferred into private hands or local controls) should be seen as an “outgrowth” of this privatization movement. Chillingly, Rising points out, those seeking to gain control of federally lands under the aegis of more efficient management styles are often those who have exerted efforts to ravage the budgets of the federal agencies that administer these lands: this is, of course, the starve-the-beast style of right-wing anti-federal political forces that have been so active in the United States since the Reagan era (a movement that, as I’ve written about here, has its parallel in post-Thatcher Britain, and which has recently reared its ugly head).

These issues are all about territory—about who controls land—and the stakes, Rising makes clear, are high. Our nation is a fascinating entity in that it is built on a harmonizing of tensions between the federal government and the states. The 10th Amendment of our Constitution is in part designed to maintain that balance—but it often appears that state efforts to maintain rights end up amounting to little more than privatizing as much space as possible. And some states have taken anti-federalist sentiments to absurd levels, calling into question the very hierarchy of jurisdictions that seems to me to be an essential part of the delicate balance key to the US, as the recent uproar about the Jade Helm military exercises and Texas’s reaction have shown: Texas, here, seems to be acting like its own state. Considering how virulently anti-regulation anti-federalist forces are, we need not even go into the specifics of their resistance to environmental policies—such efforts to privatize spaces are little more than an effort to allow a free-for-all appropriation of public land (a trend that Naomi Klein explores so powerfully in her study of the abusive appropriation of public lands and spaces in The Shock Doctrinea trend that, as I discussed here, can be seen in resistance to wealthy landowners seeking to unlawfully claim local access to beach spaces in California.).

Rising’s poignant opinion piece reminded me how vital territorial divisions are for thinking through environmental policies—and how much we need to pay attention to the fine points of who is appealing to lay claim to what, Rising insists, is only really ours while it remains federal—for once it moves to states, it falls irrevocably into the atomized world of mine, mine, mine.

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“A Haunting ISIS Flag: Unexpected Museum Guards and the Fate of Palmyra” (May 23, 2015)

As I have been reading (for a current project) a lot about the First Crusade, I have had in my mind the visions of bloody sieges and countersieges, with the flying of banners over heavily fortified cities. It is for this reason that I found so arresting the image of an ISIS (Islamic State) flag flying over a castle in Palmyra—as seen in this AP photograph at the head of a BBC article on the curious status of ISIS guards at a museum.   The ironies of ISIS museum guards are not hard to find: as I have written about more than once on this blog,  ISIS’s destruction of antiquities is clearly a key part of its aggressive militarist campaign—as is its propensity to sell off as many of the movable antiquities that they can in the desire to fund their nascent war-state. ISIS’s propensity to destroy certain artifacts and sites and its very active sales of plundered antiquities only seems incompatible if you see antiquity destruction as merely a religious statement—rather, it is a very effective propagandic act, conveying the image of a sect that does not abide by such limiting notions as “world heritage” and which is prepared to, and is indeed eager to break global taboos about preserving sites and objects of historical interest. As I have written about here before, ISIS is clearly focused on mastering symbolic modes of violence, with its cultural strategies succeeding in channels that have sometimes been thought the exclusive domain of the Hollywood-centered West.

It is the site of the flag that really struck me, as immersed as I am in in such wonderful, but horrific histories as narrated in Thomas Asbridge’s excellent The First Crusade. Much as, as Asbridge points out so well, history allows us to see that Crusaders could harbor both deeply held religious beliefs and be acquisitive, rapacious plunderers bent upon taking and sacking cities, so does ISIS spread its flags and banners on various sites throughout a Middle East destabilized by violence that few could deny was at least in very significant part (*at least in its current, post-Sadaam Hussein era phase), unleashed by the West.

While most of the museum goods have, the BBC reports, been transferred to Damascus, the image of an ISIS flag over a castle—a fortification designed to allow elites to maintain control over local territories, by offering defenses and barracks and a location from which to launch military campaigns, among other things—casts an eerie shadow over the fate of the Palmyra ruins nearby. Classified as a “World Heritage” site—a classification that would merely seem to invite the ISIS occupiers to unleash their destructive energies, since the world reaction they desire would be predictably large, with a massive shock and horror value delivered with a relatively small investment of force—the Palmyra ruins date back to the Roman era.

The Romans, of course, did their share of destruction—all of Carthage, for example, was burned to the ground, in what Ben Kiernan in Blood and Soil argues may be the first historical genocide—so it hardly seems unpoetic justice for anything Roman to come undone. Much seems to be coming undone in the Middle East these days—and that ISIS flag, reminding us of the blurred lines between the Crusading era and our own, flies hauntingly above that ancient castle.


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