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Targeting Cultural Heritage Sites Is Against American Values

"These monuments are not merely pretty things, not merely valued signs of man’s creative power. They stand for man’s struggle to relate himself to his past and to his God.” George Stout, Monuments Men, 1942.

Over the past few days, the story of “The Monuments Men” has been discussed in detail by a variety of scholars in response to President Trump’s recent tweet threatening to destroy Iranian cultural heritage sites in the event Iran retaliates against the United States for the assassination of Qasem Soleimani. As made famous in the 2014 George Clooney movie, members of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program during World War II worked to preserve cultural heritage sites during the one of the deadliest conflicts in this history of the world. In 1954, the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, and its subsequent addendums, took The Monuments Men’s mission a step further, forbidding the purposeful destruction of cultural heritage sites for military purposes. Other international laws and treaties similarly outlaw such actions.While much can be stated/debated related to the legality of President Trump’s threats, the heart of the issue goes much deeper than just the destruction of man’s creations. Historical and cultural heritage sites and property are not just objects to be admired but represent the identity of an entire civilization and its history. That is why every terrorist group in the history of the world has always sought to destroy their target’s culture first, as without it, individuals are just that, individuals, with no sense of themselves or their society. This also why the United States’ position has always been to respect the history of a society, regardless of what side of the conflict they are on, as we aim to be a beacon of hope and tolerance in the world, not a destroyer of worlds. We understood that every culture on Earth, whether it be Germany, Japan, Afghanistan, or Iran, was part of a greater story of the history of mankind, and as such, must be protected.

What is often lost in the ethical and legal discussions of these types of conflicts is the fact that these cultural heritage sites represent so much more than just some buildings and paintings but represent individuals themselves. Individuals in every society on earth journey to the historical and cultural representations of their own culture to gain a better sense of themselves, their humanity, and their place in the world. As a result of this, the surrounding areas of these cultural heritage sites are often home to generations upon generations of innocent individuals that seek nothing more than to live their lives in peace and harmony, not to mention all those that make the pilgrimage to the sites. The destruction of cultural heritage sites such as Golestan Palace and The Masjed-e Jāme’ in Iran will not only destroy a piece of history and a culture’s identity, but all those that live, work, pray, and journey to those sites. We must never forget that on September 11, 2001, when terrorists attacked the United States, it was not just the Twin Towers that were destroyed, nor was it just the workers that worked in the towers, but it was a thousands of innocent men, women, and children who lived, worked, prayed, or journeyed to that area on that day.

In the face of purposeful and malicious destruction of cultural heritage sites for military action and the use of them as bargaining chips for diplomacy, we must not ignore the very grave and real possibility that actions taken against Iran’s cultural heritage sites will murder thousands of innocent men, women, and children who lived, worked, prayed, or journeyed to that area on that day. As a nation, we are better. We must be better.

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