Reflecting on the death of Khalid al-Asaad, retired chief archaeologist of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, I felt the need to write a word or two.
His death was gruesome: publicly beheaded by ISIS jihadis after extensive torture. He died without revealing where the the city’s ancient artifacts had been hidden — he died protecting the very collections he had spent his life studying. He was 83-years-old.
Though beheaded, he now embodies a virtue far greater than he could have in life: he is a nexus for the spirit of autonomy. When you are eighty-three-years-old, there is very little that can be done to convince you to do anything other than what you believe is right. In fact, there is nothing that can be done. He was tortured; he had everything taken from him; but he refused to betray his lifelong commitment to his work, to his subject, to his city, to his dedication to humanism and the propagation of knowledge. This is what heroism looks like.
He reminds me of Liviu Librescu, the Romanian engineer and professor at Virginia Tech who survived the Holocaust. He was 76-years-old when he braced a doorway shut and refused to allow a psychotic student on a shooting spree into his classroom. The gunman shot him five times through the door while twenty-two of his students (all younger than that) escaped out the windows.
When you are a seventy-six-year-old survivor of the holocaust, you’ve seen far greater, more fearsome evil. You’ve seen state sanctioned mass murder. For Liviu Librescu, this was just one disturbed kid with a gun.
For the rest of us, too young, too inexperienced to know without hesitation when or what is worth dying for, these men provide an example for us to reflect on. Their heroism wasn’t violent; rather, it was a heroism of accepting violence. It is the strength not of inflict violence, but rather, the capacity to absorb it. Heroism contains, embraces, sacrifices: it does no harm. Heroism is humble and resolute.
Maybe, as an octogenarian, this is the best I can hope for — a swift, chaotic bundling of my life into eternity in the name of my students, studies, or loves. Or maybe I’ll just slip on a banana peel, and die with a whimper.
And that’s why, tragic as these events are, there is no better, more admirable way to die.
Socrates has nothing on these guys.
“The authentic human being is one of us who instinctively knows what he should not do, and, in addition, he will balk at doing it. He will refuse to do it, even if this brings down dread consequences to him and to those whom he loves. This, to me, is the ultimately heroic trait of ordinary people; they say no to the tyrant and they calmly take the consequences of this resistance. Their deeds may be small, and almost always unnoticed, unmarked by history. Their names are not remembered, nor did these authentic humans expect their names to be remembered. I see their authenticity in an odd way: not in their willingness to perform great heroic deeds but in their quiet refusals. In essence, they cannot be compelled to be what they are not.” –Phillip K. Dick, “How to Build a Universe…”
Edit – post destruction of the Temple of Ba’al Shamin, and the destruction of the “Venice of the Desert”
Edit 2 [10/1/2015] — Added quote by Philip K. Dick.
Edit 3 (10/3/2015) — Added Einstein quote.