Human Lives vs. Roman Colonnades

There are valid reasons why the world should be very alarmed that the Islamic State terror group has seized control of the ancient city of Palmyra.

An oasis set in the Syrian desert, Palmyra is a strategic crossroads linking the capital Damascus and cities to the east and the west. With the capture of Palmyra, the Islamic State terrorists now control half of Syria and most of the country’s oil wells, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The vast terrain now in the hands of the infamous Islamic State in Syria now stretches from the group’s westernmost strongholds in Aleppo province to its core territory in northeastern Syria, down to central Syria, with footholds in Damascus.

The terrorists’ capture of Palmyra came just days after it seized the strategic Iraqi city of Ramadi, illustrating its ability to win battles on opposite ends of a huge battlefield that spans the two countries, where it has declared a caliphate.

But in foreign capitals and for most of the mainstream media, these considerations were of secondary concern.

When asked about the capture, this is how White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest put it:

“We are deeply concerned by reports that ISIL is attacking and has taken control of the ancient town of Palmyra.  Palmyra is, as you know, a UNESCO World Heritage site.  It’s the home to historic ruins and other artifacts that are, ironically enough, critical to our understanding of this culture and to the history of the Iraqi and Syrian people.  And ISIL’s utter disregard and lack of respect for that heritage is consistent with the kind of ideology that’s propagated by that extremist organization.”

Mr. Earnest was hardly alone in his choice of words, as much of the mainstream media chose to focus chiefly on the fact that Palymra, which contains 2,000-year-old Roman-era colonnades and temples — remnants of an Arab client state of the Roman Empire that briefly carved out its own kingdom — is considered one of the Mideast’s most prominent archaeological sites. Before the civil war broke out, it was Syria’s top tourist attraction, and tens of thousands of visitors flocked to see it each year.

The head of the U.N.’s cultural agency called for an immediate end to hostilities around the archaeological site.

“I am extremely worried about what happens in Palmyra,” UNESCO chief Irina Bokova said. “Palmyra is an extraordinary world heritage site in the desert and any destruction to Palmyra is not just a war crime, but … an enormous loss to humanity.”

It is a painful indication of our times when during a war that has already claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people — nearly half of them civilians — the plight of an archaeological site is even a topic of discussion, let alone a focus of alarm.

It is possible that the destruction of  Palmyra can be considered a war crime — the United Nations’ 1954 Hague Convention prohibits harming or misappropriating cultural property. But to call it “an enormous loss to humanity” when so many innocent people are being killed is illustrative of an extremely disturbing callousness towards human life.

During the Dor Haflagah, when the nations gathered to build the infamous tower of Bavel as part of their rebellion against their Creator, when a brick fell and shattered, the builders sat and wept. But indicative of their lowly level of depravity, when a human being fell to his death, no one paid any attention.

The Torah perspective is the polar opposite.

When he learned that his brother Esav was coming towards him with four hundred men, Yaakov Avinu “became very frightened and it distressed him.” Rashi explains that he became frightened “lest he be killed,” and it distressed him “were he to kill others.”

Who were the “others” that Yaakov Avinu was so distressed at the thought of killing? The Maharal says that “others” must mean Esav’s companions. For it was possible that Esav had forced them to join his traveling group, and some of these men may not have had the intention to actually kill Yaakov Avinu. Since their true intentions were unclear, Yaakov Avinu feared that in the course of a battle, thinking that they were intending to kill him, he might kill them, while in fact they had no such intention.

The fact that innocent bystanders are often killed in the course of a military conflict has become so accepted that in contemporary military jargon there is even a term for it: it is called “collateral damage.” The attacking party, even when it engaged in a legitimate and appropriate attack, usually does not shed any tears over these losses.

Yaakov Avinu taught us that the Torah perspective is a very different one. While we are required to defend ourselves, the possibility that innocent — or even not completely guilty — parties will get hurt as a result must always be a source of concern and distress.

How much more so should be our concern over the mounting toll of civilians, including young children, being massacred in Syria at the hands of our mutual enemy: ISIS. As long as innocent human lives are being extinguished at the hands of vicious fiends, the fate of ancient archaeological sites shouldn’t even come into the picture.