Burning Books: A Crime Against Humanity

booksA picture may be worth a thousand words, but how much is a book worth?

How about not just one book, but several thousand, each a few hundred years old? They’re priceless. And why so? Faded ink on dusty pages shouldn’t have such a high value.

But these ancient manuscripts are invaluable because they are keys to the past. Their pedagogy about history, religions, and society from the past cannot be compared to anything. And it is an outrage that these historical relics are being burned and destroyed.

In Timbuktu, a city in the West African nation of Mali, radical Islamists recently burned several thousand ancient books. Timbuktu is known as the “City of 333 Saints,” a reference to the Sufi preachers and scholars who are venerated by Muslims there, and it is home to several 14th-century mosques that each hold delicate, unbound parchment manuscripts.

Over the past few weeks, Tuareg (nomadic people in West Africa) nationalist rebels and Islamic extremists from across the region have come to the town to try to burn these artifacts and ancient shrines. There is a War Crimes Tribune for individuals who violate human rights; yet should serious consideration — and severe retribution — also be given to those who destroy priceless antiquities? All of these cultural treasures reflect history and civilization. The destruction of such items is totally gratuitous, and those who aim to erase history and civilization should be shown little tolerance.

Fortunately, some of the manuscripts were saved. Should those who save such artifacts be awarded metals of tribute? I think so.

An example of such a resident in Timbuktu is Ali Imam Ben Essayouti. He went into one of the many mosques before radical Islamists arrived there, bundled 8,000 volumes in sackcloth, stacked them in crates, and then moved them to a hidden bunker. Mr. Essayouti said, “These manuscripts, they are not just for us in Timbuktu. They belong to all of humanity. It is our duty to save them.”

Well, Mr. Essayouti, you are right: no one should be a bystander to these atrocities. It should be our — mankind’s — duty to penalize those who commit such crimes.

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