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In recent days, Isis has committed two atrocities in the Syrian city of Palmyra. First, it beheaded Khaled al-Asaad, the 82-year-old retired chief archaeologist of the city, before mutilating his body. Then it blew up the ancient temple of Baal Shamin, built in AD17.
These are both despicable acts. But might it not also seem repugnant that judging by press and social media reaction many of us find the destruction of a stone building at least as shocking as the decapitation of a human being? We know that people matter much more than things, and yet it seems we can be more moved by cultural vandalism than cold-blooded murder.
A form of compassion fatigue might partly explain this. The relentless news about people being brutally killed by Isis can be numbing, and with good reason. If we truly stopped to think about what each such death meant for victims and their families we would surely become overwhelmed by despair. If empathy had no natural limit, then neither would our sorrows.
But I don’t think this gets to the heart of why the razing of the temple rightly matters so much to us, and why such concerns can be as powerful as the ones we have for individual lives. […]