Mad Dog 21/21: Blowing Up Buddha
October 16, 2006 Hesh Wiener
Beginning in the third century, craftsmen in Bamiyan, central Afghanistan, carved and decorated two giant figures of Buddha. In March 2001, six months before Al Qaeda brought down the World Trade Center, the Taliban razed the statues. Two years later, the United States bombed Baghdad. And looters hit the National Museum . Their acts were so vile that even the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, was moved. He said, “Stuff happens.” More recently, the board of the world’s second largest computer company was taken over by cannibals. They toppled two of the greatest images in high technology, those of Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard.
Long before there was the Internet, long before there were European ships capable of rounding the Cape of Good Hope, there was the Silk Road. The Silk Road is more accurately Silk Roads, and they were major overland trade routes that connected Europe and Asia Minor to China. With few exceptions, such as Marco Polo, few people actually traveled the whole way. Instead, traders and trekkers and caravans plied portions of the routes, connecting with others at various crossing points, exchanging goods, and then making the return trips. So, while silk from China could reach Europe, there were no European silk buyers in China and no Chinese silk merchants visiting the marketplaces of Europe or what is now Turkey. Packets moved across the Silk Road network, some almost at random, other routed to reach known points of interest.
One of the cities on the Silk Road was Bamiyan, in central Afghanistan, which was a regional capital from the third century or possibly as late as the fifth century or a people called the Hazara, who are still a very important group in Afghanistan. Bamiyan was a center of commerce and also a center for the region’s main religion at the time, Buddhism. One visitor, a Chinese man named Xuanzang, who, like Marco Polo, did a fair bit of wandering, came all the way from Eastern China to see the burg and its statues. Beginning in the ninth century, Bamiyan fell under control of Muslims, who, perhaps out of respect for the venerable civilization they replaced, left the big Buddhas standing.
In the centuries that followed, a lot of Muslim leaders subsumed Bamiyan into their empires, and some of them were pretty serious about the Muslim prohibition on human images. But none of the dozens of Sultans and chieftains and B-list caliphs who were in charge of Bamiyan, its surrounding region, or even all of Afghanistan dissed the big old Buddhas. Well, not entirely. Some of them took potshots at the statues, but apparently the damage was minimal, or was eventually repaired.
By the end of the fifteenth century, the Silk Road was in decline. European ships began to ply routes around Africa to the Far East. Shipping, even over such long distances, provided faster transfer times than caravans, and it was more efficient. Most cargoes arrived intact. The oceanic network was faster, cheaper, and it did not have the kind of loss characteristics typical of traffic over the Silk Road network. For many purposes, the Silk Road just could not compete.
During the same era, Gutenberg‘s system of movable type led to a comparable upheaval that was far more pronounced across Europe and South Asia, with their alphabetic written languages, than in East Asia, with its iconography. The world would never be the same. Of course, it never is.
Back in South Asia, the very same emperors who broke up Hindu temples they found abominable and used the beautiful stone in their mosques and castles. Many of the Mughals, who were the heavy hitters in the region beginning in the sixteenth century, weren’t known for their architectural tolerance.
In India, where they controlled the north and parts of the center of the country, few examples of Hindu sculpture survived. If you want to see old Hindu sculpture in India, you have to head for the South, or to inland regions the Mughals never quite controlled. But in the northwest, in Bamiyan, the Mughals left the Buddhas alone. The Buddhas were safe because by that time there where no Buddhists left, or not enough to worry about. By contrast, India was loaded with Hindus. Taking their temples apart threw a good scare into them. In their political calculus, which allowed respect for great art and architecture, notwithstanding the admonitions of the Koran, there was little point in smashing idols, particularly outstanding ones, if there were no idolators around to scare.
The Taliban figured differently. When they chased the Russians out of Afghanistan and there were no more tanks and helicopters to smash, they couldn’t get over their destructive habits. So, even though Mullah Omar, arguably the most important figure in the Taliban movement at the start of the twenty-first century, initially concluded that the Buddhas, the wonders of Afghanistan, deserved his movement’s respect, he, or at least the movement he appeared to lead, eventually came to a different conclusion. The reason might be simple. The Taliban may simply have run out of things to smash. There were no Russian tanks left, no kite-flying contests to ban, no prominent video sellers to intimidate, no women publicly teasing men with their beautiful faces. So, armed with calculated fury and in possession of explosives in excess, they demolished the Buddhas of Bamiyan.
Similarly, six months later, Al Qaeda demolished the World Trade Center towers, which were symbols as emblematic of New York if not America as the Buddhas were of Bamiyan, if not of all Afghanistan’s cultural treasure. Adding injury to insult, the Al Qaeda gang brought down the towers during a working day, when thousand of people were just coming into the office.
Two and a half years later, the United States echoed Al Qaeda, even using the same medium, air power, and then some. It blew up a whopping chunk of Baghdad. This was like the destruction of the World Trade Center, but bigger, Texas style. It brought down lots of structures, mainly government buildings. Iraq quickly descended into anarchy. The U.S. and its allies almost as quickly occupied and secured what they felt were the most important facilities, such as those of the Oil Ministry, while leaving others, such as schools, hospitals, and the National Museum, largely unguarded. Anything unguarded was pillaged in the ensuing chaos.
Al Qaeda and the U.S.-led coalition, but not the toppled Iraqi regime, fostered a huge volume of media content. While a great deal of news and propaganda was carried by mature media, such as television, radio, and newspapers, the greatest volume and diversity were moved along the Internet, which was beginning to reach a lot of people at broadband speeds. The Internet carried the messages of older media plus its own unique content in the form of Web sites, blogs, and emails. The Internet not only delivered hard news and sincere commentary, but also became the forum for worldwide debate, the hatchery of conspiracy theories, as well as a fountain of other verbal, graphical, audio, and video expressions instigated by the conflict.
The Internet and broadband seem to be fomenting or at least facilitating upheaval much the way maritime and printing technologies did in the fifteenth century.
Whether cause, effect, or coincidence, the most astounding events of our times seem to be happening because the prime movers are thinking in Internet time, with its distorted perspective. It’s the like the cartoon drawn by Saul Steinberg that once graced the cover of the New Yorker magazine, which shows the USA from Ninth Avenue to the West Coast as seen by a chauvinist, except it’s not a joke, and the result is a skewed vision of events, not geography.
The Buddhas of Bamiyan could someday be rebuilt, but they will never be the same. The World Trade Center will be replaced by other buildings, and the originals could have been replicated, but they will never be the same. The people killed there are, of course, irreplaceable. Some of the relics taken from the Iraqi National Museum may reappear, while others will have been destroyed or lost forever.
The same goes for the images of Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, two great men. Part of their greatness stems from the very reason they put their names on the company they founded. Sure, they wanted credit for their accomplishments, but they also were willing to be responsible for their mistakes. Hewlett and Packard are no longer alive, but their legacies live on. One of these legacies, and arguably the most prominent of them all, is the Hewlett-Packard Company. Its image is in the hands of the corporation’s directors. So, too, are the images of Mr. Hewlett and Mr. Packard. Sadly and unjustly, all three images have been sullied by the shameless conduct of some of the company’s directors, executives, and agents. It’s quite disgraceful, and it isn’t going to do much good for the offending parties, nor the company, nor the inspirational power of Hewlett and Packard.
And that’s not the worst of it, because the malefactors at Hewlett-Packard are just like us, and we are just like them.
All of us and the organizations to which we belong are living on the Internet these days, and we are all susceptible to thinking in Internet time, even when it is patently inappropriate. So while we must master the use of these technologies and govern them as wisely as we can, we must also bear in mind the deadly sirens every technology seems to evoke, particularly when that technology is fresh and exciting.
We have the technology to implement excellent medical records systems that provide unprecedented benefits as they deliver scanner images and patient histories, but we can lose our perspective in ways that let these systems absorb all the material resources and management focus of the surrounding health system, to the profound detriment of the patients whose data we’ve become adept at managing.
We can deliver curricula by wire, but we cannot replace the experience of a classroom or laboratory, let alone a university, nor should we.
We can help people buy merchandise online, giving the shoppers more choice and, often, lower cost, but taken to excess we may lose the social experience of shopping and wreck the lives of people who work as shopkeepers, clerks, and wholesalers.
Some of the social and economic changes wrought by technologies are irresistible, but others are not; some are overwhelming, others can be ameliorated; some are overwhelmingly beneficial, others, when examined thoughtfully, are attractive but not worth the price.
It’s often easy to spot technological fool’s gold. The people who are often in the best position to do this, though, are the technicians and the people who manage them. Because they stand to gain, at least in an immediate and personal sense, from the expansion of technologies, they are tempted to live by Internet time. They ought to know better, and they probably do, even when they don’t act that way.
Unfortunately, the powerful people who can make the most grievous errors on our behalf when they succumb to Internet time don’t often have a very good understanding of the problem, or just don’t care. They’ve got the nerve, but they won’t get Nirvana.