Monday, June 8, 2009

Natural Causes (2001)

FROM THE ARCHIVES, June 8 - This originally posted on, 3/19/01


Afghanistan's ruling Islamic militia, the Taliban, pulled a weird bit of PR jujitsu this week, declaring, after the fact, that the recent destruction of the giant, approximately 1,400 year old stone Buddhas of Bamiyan was not, as previously announced, a solemn duty of faith but instead nothing more than a momentary spasm of rage brought on by the perceived condescension in the United Nations' offer of hard cash to preserve the relics. Essentially, the destruction of the Buddhas is now being blamed on the very people who tried to save the Buddhas. "When your children are dying in front of you," said the Taliban envoy, "then you don't care about a piece of art." Like most Talibanic contortions, the complaint doesn't really make sense, but the leverage in this particular rationale is strangely rational - the hypocrisy of the UN in condemning the destruction of inanimate objects while turning a blind eye to the destruction of the Afghan people. Since the Taliban took power less than 3 years ago, the new government has denied jobs and basic medical service to all twelve million Afghan women, hanged prostitutes, stoned adulterers, banned TV and shaving and made displaced Afghans the world's largest body of internal refugees. And while it's not entirely fair to blame UNESCO (which, as the UN cultural agency, can only be concerned with the preservation of artistic artifacts) for the lopsided reaction of the west, it is kind of disheartening to read that the UN is calling for "new international laws to punish cultural vandalism" while the far graver human rights outrages get no such attention.

Also - isn't 1,400 years kind of a long run for any human artifact? After all, the world's largest Buddha (it'll be three times taller than the Statue of Liberty), currently under construction in Bodhgaya, India, is only expected to last a millennium. Albert Speer, architect of the Third Reich, envisioned imperial Berlin as nothing more than weed choked ruins after the thousand year mark. Not to be blasé about the Afghan Buddha explosions, but hey - nothing lasts forever. Machu Picchu, the lost Inca city of Peru, is on the verge of sliding down a mountain. The net result of both forms of ruin remains.... ruin. Shouldn't human folly be considered as random a factor as natural disaster, erosion and decay? If so, then perhaps the builders of the new Buddha colossus should start hedging their bets now. The greatest threat to their new statue could come not from the extremes of a thousand rainy seasons, but from Scientologists and Rastafarians, two religions that are roughly the same age as Islam was when the Afghan Buddhas were erected. If Afghanistan has had three rulers in just the last ten years, who knows who will control upper India by 3001?