Burning Books and Leveling Libraries: Extremist Violence and Cultural Destruction
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Whether the product of passion or of a cool-headed decision to use ideas to rationalize excess, the decimation of the world's libraries occurred throughout the 20th century, and there is no end in sight. Cultural destruction is, therefore, of increasing concern.
In her previous book Libricide, Rebecca Knuth focused on book destruction by authoritarian regimes: Nazis, Serbs in Bosnia, Iraqis in Kuwait, Maoists during the Cultural Revolution in China, and the Chinese Communists in Tibet. But authoritarian governments are not the only perpetrators. Extremists of all stripes―through terrorism, war, ethnic cleansing, genocide, and other forms of mass violence―are also responsible for widespread cultural destruction, as she demonstrates in this new book.
Burning Books and Leveling Libraries is structured in three parts. Part I is devoted to struggles by extremists over voice and power at the local level, where destruction of books and libraries is employed as a tactic of political or ethnic protest. Part II discusses the aftermath of power struggles in Germany, Afghanistan, and Cambodia, where the winners were utopians who purged libraries in efforts to purify their societies and maintain power. Part III examines the fate of libraries when there is war and a resulting power vacuum.
The book concludes with a discussion of the events in Iraq in 2003, and the responsibility of American war strategists for the widespread pillaging that ensued after the toppling of Saddam Hussein. This case poignantly demonstrates the ease with which an oppressed people, given the collapse of civil restraints, may claim freedom as license for anarchy, construing it as the right to prevail, while ignoring its implicit mandate of social responsibility. Using military might to enforce ideals (in this case democracy and freedom) is futile, Knuth argues, if insufficient consideration is given to humanitarian, security, and cultural concerns.
yet their actions set up a reaction that closes the public mind and guarantees that the intended message will not be heard. If the destruction of books is an attempt to communicate, then the targeting of an entire library—its physical structure, furnishings, and books—must have a meaning that is unique and distinct from the destruction of books alone. Destroying a library may bring the usual affective pleasure from destructiveness as well as cognitive rewards—a heightened release from
overcome passive resistance and generate enthusiasm. Reducing complex moral and ethical issues to simple rules and premises paved a clear path toward utopia. The template of an ideology invited people to relinquish the burdensome aspects of modernity—especially the anomie and cognitive dissonance—in exchange for a clear identity and community. Ideology provided a simple guideline by which to determine who was in the group and, alternately, those to whom there was no moral obligation. The most
absolute isolation in international sporting competitions had ﬁnally inspired internal protests against regime policies and some movement toward the racial integration of South African sports teams (Lapchick 1975, 205). These successes were not lost on activists, who interpreted the expulsions as validating their belief that any contact with South Africa, no matter how benign in appearance, supported the apparatus of apartheid. This premise would thereafter drive the movement’s activities and
O’Brien, Conor Cruise. 1987. “What Can Become of South Africa.” In The AntiApartheid Reader: The Struggle against White Racist Rule in South Africa, ed. David Mermelstein. New York: Grove Press, 430–473. “Pres. Steyn se kierie sou gepraat het” [President Steyn’s Statue Would Have Spoken]. 1984. Beeld, 26 January. Priemus, Hugo. 1983. “Squatters in Amsterdam: Urban Social Movement, Urban Managers or Something Else?” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 7 (3):417–425. Rhoodie,
for the destruction of the “shrines of unbelievers”: “God Almighty is the only real shrine and all fake idols should destroyed” (Flood 2002, 655). The Taliban stepped up its campaign against what Omar called the “gods of the inﬁdels,” idolatrous symbols that deﬁled Islam (Satchell 2001). In March 2001, in an act of “studious insolence,” a measure designed to provoke the outside world, the Taliban destroyed the ancient Bamiyan Buddhas, 174-foot and 125-foot statues carved out of sandstone cliffs