07 Jul 2020 21:14 IST

Destroying historical monuments achieves nothing

These symbols remind us how America, despite early mistakes, corrected course to become a global power

As ISIS expanded territory in West Asia, it began to mercilessly destroy monuments, mosques, and other great human artefacts of cultural heritage, some nearly 3,000 years old. This happened everywhere ISIS ruled — in Iraq, Syria, and parts of Libya.

Responding to these events, the New York Times published an opinion article on April 3, 2015, “Use Force to Stop ISIS’ Destruction of Art and History,” by Hugh Eakin. The Times, which carefully vets all opinions printed on its media properties, seemed to support an overly broad reaction — of using an international military force, primarily airpower, to “readily detect insurgents moving toward the historic sites” and kill them. There is no provision in international law for sovereign nations to wage war to protect monuments in another nation.

A few weeks ago, President Trump said practically the same thing — of using force as a last resort if local police forces are unable or unwilling to protect historical monuments in America. But there was a difference. His call for action was lawful. The Insurrection Act expressly authorises the president to employ the military “or any other means” in “cases of insurrection, or obstruction to the laws.”

As regards punishing defacers, the Veterans’ Memorial Preservation Act, a law passed in 2003, expressly states that a person who “wilfully injures or destroys, or attempts to injure or destroy, any structure, plaque, statue, or other monuments on public property commemorating the service of any person or persons in the armed forces of the United States shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than 10 years, or both.” Trump was furious that attempts were made to bring down Washington DC’s magnificent statue of America’s 7th president, Andrew Jackson, who served as a major general in the War of 1812.

As usual, Trump was vilified in the press for saying something that the Times did only five years ago, making it all about politics. More on this later.

Centuries of injustice

The civic situation in America is dire. Violent mobs, protesting the killing of George Floyd as another example of systemic racial inequities in criminal justice, have already brought down statues of George Washington in Portland, Francis Scott Key (the author of America’s National Anthem) in San Francisco, and over twenty statues of Christopher Columbus in various cities because these historic figures were all slave owners.

No person who is not black can ever relate to what has happened to African Americans. It has taken American blacks over 350 years, during three phases, to fight generations of injustice and progressively win liberation. From 1619 to 1861, blacks suffered as bonded servants of white slave owners. Blacks couldn’t own anything during this time — all of their labours benefited the whites. Blacks were often sold and purchased between white families. Children of blacks became slaves of the children of the white owners and this went on for generations.

Not all whites subscribed to such a repugnant practice. It took a four-year bloody Civil War to resolve an existential question whether America should be a slave nation when the southern “Confederate” armies lost to the “Union” armies from the north. The majority of fighters on both sides were white; so, contrary to myth, this was not a war of white people against black people. It was more a battle of two ideologies, with both blacks and whites fighting on both sides. With the North winning the war, all blacks were freed by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863, through his Emancipation Proclamation. In 1865, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution abolished slavery forever. A majority of the statues destroyed during the recent Floyd riots were monuments of Confederate soldiers and officers.

Vast socio-economic differences

But the abolition of slavery did not mean that blacks immediately became free. They had no land, no skills, or no capital. All they knew was to perform agrarian tasks on a farm. So blacks largely embraced share-cropping when they worked for white landowners in return for a share of the crops produced on the land. With the new capital, some blacks opened businesses. Colleges dedicated only to blacks were founded throughout the South with support from the federal government. Progress, however, was extremely slow as blacks lagged horribly behind whites across every socio-economic metric.

This imbalance of power continued to strengthen whites. Blacks were often punished severely for small crimes. Lynching, informal public executions of blacks by whites, was common. Southern states even passed “Jim Crow” laws mandating the segregation of whites from blacks in public schools, public places, and public transportation, and the segregation of restrooms, restaurants, and drinking fountains. This horrible segregationist period, when African Americans were technically free but remained oppressed, constituted the second phase of Reconstruction. It existed for nearly a hundred years until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Symbolic, yet meaningless, retaliation

The southern states commissioned many statues of white supremacists during this period, in part to express superiority over blacks. Many of these statues came down during the recent Floyd riots. All historical figures who believed in segregation, including Woodrow Wilson, the 28th president, have come under renewed attack. Princeton University decided to remove the name of Wilson from the Woodrow Wilson Institute of Public Policy. Wilson had also been Princeton’s president before winning America’s presidency. Princeton had refused to do so just three years earlier, signifying that the Floyd riots are indeed beginning to make an impact.

But defacing, destroying, or even removing these figures does not erase history or lessen the pain that blacks suffered for nearly 350 years. The best service history provides is that it teaches us about human strengths and weaknesses. It shows our heroes as incredibly brave people who did things that the rest of us can never do, like organising and fighting an armed mutiny against the British to win American independence. But it also demonstrates that these human beings were imperfect individuals, fallible in their beliefs and actions.

Owning slaves and engaging in segregation are obviously not minor mistakes that can be overlooked. They’re egregious crimes that should have ordinarily been punished at the time. But no one was punished because the laws and prevailing standards of conduct at the time not only condoned such behaviour, they actually encouraged it. While such conduct was morally wrong, it is equally inappropriate to hold people (who died a long time ago) accountable to today’s moral standards.

Besides, if revenge is the motive, destroying an inanimate structure is not going to punish someone long gone. Worse, doing so doesn’t improve the day-to-day lives of blacks or magically improve race relations in policing.

Importance of not forgetting history

But more importantly, historical artefacts help us truly understand the past and learn how humans evolved. Humans have a defined life-span but artefacts practically live forever. We learned about the tools that humans used 5,000 years ago because of paintings that glorified their art. We would never have known about the greatness of the Egyptians Pharaohs if pyramids and sphinxes were destroyed 250 years after they were built, for whatever reason.

Statues of slave owners and Confederate figures educate us about how not to be like them when it comes to matters related to race. Confederate imagery is particularly powerful because it shows that an evil ideology that celebrated the servitude of another human being was soundly defeated in battle. These symbols are a reminder about how America, despite having imperfect leaders through time, worked through its difficulties to become the world’s most powerful nation, constantly evolving, always becoming better. In a sense, these statues are like all of us today. We make mistakes, learn from them, make course corrections, and move on.

Intellectual arguments about the destruction of these monuments apart, it is also the hypocrisy of the media that is dividing us on this important question. If the New York Times argued for force against ISIS, it should have supported Trump when he called for similar measures to protect American monuments. The argument could have been simple: Protests are ok. Rioting and defacing are not. Some historic symbols do not belong in the public square. Let’s move them to a museum through peaceful means. But violence of any kind is unacceptable. As the leading media organisation in America, the Times could have influenced other media outlets to follow suit.

If the media had taken such an approach, it could have helped prevent injuries to thousands and the loss of dozens of lives. It could also have prevented Trump from relying on culture wars to further divide an already fractured nation.

If Trump wins re-election, it would be, in part, because voters despise the hypocrisy of the media which, just five years ago, believed in the very ideas of protecting monuments that Trump has always espoused.