Destruction as Metaphor
Buildings are metaphors of our lives. We identify ourselves with the houses we live in and the places where we work. We differentiate ourselves from others based in large part on whether they live and work in buildings we recognize and with which we can associate. A concrete, steel and glass office tower is, I imagine, as alien a workplace to an Afghan farmer as their raw adobe street side shop is an unlikely workplace to us. Yet both forms symbolize a lifestyle and impart a sense of belonging.
We recently lost some powerful symbols and their loss is at once real and metaphorical. The World Trade Center was, and the Pentagon is, emblematic of American culture -- and more than that -- of globalization, homogenization, of commerce, wealth and military might. To some the trade towers and the Pentagon clearly symbolize the enemy, and he is more than us. The Taliban, it seems certain, endorsed if not supported the attacks on New York and Washington; but we should recall the giant Buddhas of the Bamiyan Valley in Afghanistan that were also destroyed by the same intolerant folks. The Buddha is in no way emblematic of the United States or of the West, and that tells us that we were neither the only enemy nor the exclusive target; when they attacked, they killed thousands of people, but I suspect that people were not the target. The targets here, like the giant Buddhas, were symbolic, their destruction metaphorical.
Terrorism in this instance struck at heritage, which is to say at culture and its icons, at the core of a belief system. In an instant the act differentiated "us" from "them" in no uncertain terms. The magnitude of the events we witnessed in September left little room for reflection or introspection; the horror and grief over the loss of life in New York and Washington trumped all other emotion. If we can find the time to contemplate the metaphor, however, it may inform our understanding of the act (which is not to say it can be excused). It may also help guide our response when our reaction moves into its next phase, that of rebuilding.
Al-Qaida and the Taliban are not the first to revile symbolically. We, humankind, regularly demean and disregard the symbols of others. Napoleon's troops blew the face off the Sphinx; in Cholula the Spanish leveled an Aztec temple on the high pyramid and replaced it with a Christian church. Dresden was firebombed during the Second World War. In New Mexico the Santuario de Guadalupe in Santa Fe was constructed defiantly over a Native American village, and there is currently a plan to plow a road through the petroglyphs on Albuquerque's west mesa.
Each of these acts is metaphorical -- all were, and are, intended to demonstrate control, to manipulate power, to express dominance over someone else's heritage. The destruction of built heritage is a powerful tool for social change because we respond to buildings in much the same emotive way that we respond to our families and our communities. They give us the cues that govern our behavior.
A Muslim entering a Mosque in Istanbul, Kandahar or Djenné obeys a different set of canons than the Zuni Indian in New Mexico does as he sings in the public plaza or leaves his sacred kiva to dance for the benefit of his people. The Tarahumara in northern
Mexico build a shrine of stone and boughs and are sparked to a behavior that Roman Catholics elsewhere might find shocking; the throat of a young goat is slit and it is left next to the Eucharistic chalice and host tobleed to death. Underlying all these behaviors is reverence, not just of a chosen deity, but of the cultural tradition which celebrates it. The signals for its varied and distinct procedure come from the visual features and furnishings of the building or site within which and around which the celebration occurs.
When the war in Afghanistan is over and the rebuilding begins, we, the coalition of industrialized nations who will fund the effort, will be put to a test. We will no doubt be inclined to import our own culture and in our typically xenophobic way try to make Kabul look a little more like Levittown -- just as we have done in the Native communities here in New Mexico. I disagree with Rush Limbaugh's assessment that we are blowing Afghanistan not back to the stone age, but into it for the first time; that an air war in this case advances culture. On the contrary, what is being destroyed is that which is not understood making it easy to demean and patronize. What we see, alien and meager as it seems to us, represents (believe it or not) a high level of sophistication in response to both environment and a culture that is venerable and far, far more ancient than ours.
I am amazed when I see news footage of Afghanistan; amazed at the treeless landscape, denuded long before Alexander the Great traversed it; astounded by the integrity of the people whose belief system has been systematically attacked time and time again and yet survives; intrigued by the cities of earth being leveled by "daisy cutters" whose snide moniker is as insidious as its explosive power is destructive.
When the time comes to stop cutting daisies and to begin rebuilding, is it too much to hope that we allow ourselves to be guided by what has been destroyed? I would venture that the rebuilding in New York and Washington will follow that template. The traditions of earthen architecture in Afghanistan and throughout Central Asia give us some of the most beautiful and innovative mud buildings on the planet. And their function is not just to provide basic shelter; they do far more than that. These buildings represent a way of life -- they accommodate a unique approach to climate, to extended families, to worship, to agrarian living and to community life. Do we have it in us to assist in the rebuilding of the earthen structures (not their replacement with western-style homes) and in the process underscore the human values they represent? Or will we behave as the Bureau of Indian Affairs did in this country during the 19th and 20th centuries and try consciously to undermine, marginalize and dominate a society by replacing their material culture with our own?
We are in the process of getting even with the Taliban. I think that we cannot do otherwise, though I disagree with some of our tactics and would have hoped that a socially and culturally enlightened foreign policy would have preempted the situation leading up to September 11th. But here we are. Now our best hope is to turn to the rebuilding of Afghanistan in a manner that is at once commensurate to the damage, befitting the values of the Afghan people and demonstrative of our willingness to learn from the experience.