To Extremists, Books Are Trojan Horses

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Ms. Knuth is an Associate Professor of Library and Information Science at the University of Hawaii. She is the author of Libricide: The Regime-Sponsored Destruction of Books and Libraries in the 20th Century (Praeger, 2003). Her latest book is Burning Books and Leveling Libraries: Extremist Violence and Cultural Destruction (Praeger, 2006).

Book and library destruction is a sordid, ironic fact of modern life that appears frequently in accounts of war and social violence. Andrei Codrescu’s The Hole in the Flag: A Romanian Exile’s Story of Return and Revolution includes a poignant account of the devastation of Bucharest’s beautiful nineteenth-century university library, lost during the insurrection that brought down Ceausescu in 1989. In Kashmir: Wail of a Valley, professor Mohan Lai Kaul describes the sudden, violent expulsion of the Pandit people from Kashmir in 1989 and documents in excruciating detail the destruction of private book collections by militant Muslims. Books on the Blitz mention only in passing a 1940 air raid in the wholesale bookseller's area of London that resulted in the loss of 6 million books.

Attention to cultural losses in no way diminishes the horror of human casualties; indeed, the two often go hand in hand. The book fires of 1933 in German cities were followed by ethnocide, in occupied countries, which ultimately destroyed 90% of Polish Jews and 70% of their books, as well as three million non-Jewish Poles and two-thirds of Poland’s books. In the 1970s, the Cultural Revolution in China claimed millions of books. The Chinese Communists’ efforts to extinguish Buddhism and impose communism in Tibet led to mass murder and the destruction of an estimated two-thirds of that country’s texts.

There are many subtexts to war that affect the fate of books. Libraries, as well as other public institutions, can be lost during the anarchy and chaos that result when no military distinction is made between combat zones and civilian areas. Violent regime change may result in collateral damage from combat, iconoclastic destruction of the fallen regime’s books and cultural institutions, or nihilistic mob responses to power vacuum and the fall of an oppressive regime. In the chaos of war, it can be difficult to identify discrete motives (tactical, ideological, acquisitive, or random) for book destruction. However, we do know that war provides the occasion for assertion of power. Because libraries are powerful symbols (of the enemy, the establishment, cosmopolitanism, etc.), they are lightning rods for aggression.

When the destruction is designed to deprive a specific group of its cultural heritage, it has a close relationship with genocide and ethnocide, and like them is a tragic phenomenon of global proportions. Rogue governments driven by the embrace of ideology and orthodoxy have often launched programs of social transformation by purging their own countries’ collections, and soon afterwards turned to the cultural resources of neighboring nations, channeling their policies of destruction toward the goal of colonization. Colonization facilitated by cultural destruction was a regular feature of the 1990s, as witnessed by the Serbs’ shelling of Bosnia’s cultural institutions, including the National Library, and Iraq’s looting and destruction of Kuwait’s information resources. In discussing officially-sanctioned destruction in my first book (see above), I chose “libricide” as a label in order to isolate these systemic, tactical initiatives from the myriad other incidents of more localized destruction.

My recent book, Burning Books and Leveling Libraries: Extremist Violence and Cultural Destruction, examines the social dynamics involved in destruction by alienated extremist groups. Their actions are a function of social protest, ethnic rivalry, politics, or purification projects, and book and library destruction is the form of violence they choose to get their message across. As with libricide, it is goal-oriented, and the choice of libraries as targets is a key to this goal. In 1981, for instance, paramilitaries backed by the Sinhalese Buddhist government torched Sri Lanka’s Jaffna Public Library in order to intimidate and expunge the cultural heritage of the Hindu Tamil minority. In 1984, anti-apartheid protestors in Amsterdam staged an attack on that city’s South African Institute to expose and cripple institutionalized support of racism. And, in 2004, an attack by Hindu nationalists on India’s Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute was staged to protest Muslim influences and scholarship that refuted Hindu myths. In each case, the perpetrators understood themselves as rational actors who were protesting a status quo that they rejected.

To extremists, books are Trojan horses, concealing political and religious heresies that have the potential to undermine ideology and weaken their authority. Localized cultural violence engineered by extremist groups is often staged as righteous protest to affirm group allegiance while simultaneously striking out at corrupting influences and antithetical values. When an extremist group gains absolute power (as did the Taliban in Afghanistan), destruction of culture escalates rapidly and rites of renunciation and affirmation spin out of control. Orthodoxy typically becomes enforceable by death, and attacks on books accelerate in frequency and proportion. Extremism is clearly the common denominator in book destruction, and rationalizations of orthodoxy are a handy tool for cementing the power of absolutist leaders.

Extremism is a shadow among the legacies of the Enlightenment, which set a precedent for modern use of ideas to mold society and guide the state, but also opened the door to the rationalized extremism that has been so much a part of modern times (a clear precedent being the French Revolution). Ironically, extremists of recent times have claimed their right to change society through the promotion of ideas while rejecting notions of open-ended inquiry and choice that are fundamental to the principles of humanism and the Enlightenment. Books are modern fetishes: they carry ideas and can shape opinion, and they are the foundation of modern inquiry and pluralism. This places them on a collision course with extremists.

Far more difficult to account for than systemic or reactionary book destruction is large-scale cultural destruction that appears to be collateral or accidental but nevertheless serves as an instrument of intimidation. The cultural losses that resulted from the Allies’ strategic bombing of almost every city center in Germany and Japan during World War II were one of the biggest conceptual hurdles I faced in my first book as I sought clarity on the issue of responsibility. Having chosen not to label the case libricide, mainly on the premise that the bombers did not intentionally target libraries, I wrestled nevertheless with a sense of the culpability of the nations who attained victory as a result of these egregious attacks. What mindset allowed the leadership of nations committed to humanistic visions of civilization to order the annihilation of German and Japanese cities? How different is it from the extremism of the rogue regimes that began this war, and others?

Modern global wars, I have concluded, are fought over ideas and ways of life at least as much as they are over tangible resources. When leaders choose to wage total war, they are embracing militarism and rationalizing any tactic to ensure victory and cultural survival. In effect, they are becoming ideological extremists themselves, devoted to a singular vision of what they are fighting for. While cultural destruction was calculated from the beginning on the part of the Germans and Japanese, the Allies slid into the tactic, with some amount of debate: as the war escalated, survival of a free society became an all-purpose justification for killing civilians, firebombing city centers, and, in the process, destroying libraries and cultural institutions of immense value to civilization. It was a lesson of World War II that using military might to enforce ideals with insufficient consideration given to humanitarian, security, and cultural factors ultimately compromises those very ideals (in this case, democracy and freedom), in principle and in outcome.

An ongoing refusal to question modern war theory and acceptance of excessive militarism and nationalism set the stage for the cultural destruction we witnessed in Iraq in 2003. While the Iraqis looted and pillaged their own institutions, the Bush administration ignored warnings about this likelihood and, by default, allowed the mayhem and cultural devastation. This leaves America with a burden of complicity. Like so many extremists who have justified the destruction of libraries with self-serving agendas and glib rationalizations, the Bush administration defended its innocence in the looting of Iraq with a demeanor of moral rectitude, suppression of dissent, and refusal to reflect honestly on its actions. National security advisors forged ahead with militaristic zeal, rationalizing aggressive strategies in the name of universal values.

While I do not equate the American administration with the Nazi or Taliban regimes, I nevertheless see the influence of ideological extremism on U.S. military decisions. A truly chilling outcome of my inquiries is that the largely unacknowledged errors of commission that resulted in widespread cultural destruction in World War II have been repeated, though by omission, in Iraq. It would seem that democracies that champion civilization and the sanctity of cultural heritage are just as capable of dismissing books and libraries during war as the extremist regimes they aim to extinguish.

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John Chapman - 9/20/2006

Thoughtful article. Some books are so valuable for the ideas they embody: for me it is literature. I can image if we were invaded by a foreign army and all books were destroyed, great books like The Grapes of Wrath or Cannery Row- archtypes of American culture.

It’s difficult to forget about politics for a minute. A civilization (Iraq) has been torn to pieces in the name of whatever. Having worked one summer in Iraq’s National Archaeological Museum I can imagine what’s missing: Greek statues, delicately patterned Assyrian pottery from 2000 BC, statues and pots and amphorae of the Babylonians, all smashed to pieces. Luckily most of the sites in Iraq haven’t been excavated yet. Out of 100,000 only about 10,000 have been worked. The destruction and theft of Iraqi libraries, archives after the US and British led invasion and occupation of Iraq in April 2003 was so careless, so absurdly useless. It was an enormous breach of the United Nations Convention on the protection of cultural property of countries under military occupation. It’s as though Iraq had been invaded by Low Culture posing as Freedom and Democracy. I’m will to bet most Americans haven’t the vaguest idea of what the world has lost in Iraqi culture. Have they been too busy becoming un-naturally large on Freedom fries?