Thursday, January 04, 2007

Xerox copies are just that

Stories from the GiTMO closet:

In October 2002, a U.S. Marine captain allegedly squatted over a copy of the Quran during intensive questioning of a Muslim prisoner, who was "incensed" by the tactic, according to an FBI agent.... After an erroneous report of Quran abuse prompted protests overseas in 2005, the U.S. military conducted an investigation that confirmed five incidents of intentional and unintentional mishandling of the Quran at the detention facility. They acknowledged that soldiers and interrogators had kicked the book, had stood on it and, in one case, had inadvertently sprayed urine on a copy.

Ethical issues aside, I'm intrigued by the fact that humans can get really provoked and enraged by the vandalism of a book, that they perceive this as desecration.

Let's examine the incidents for a moment. A copy of the Quran had been doused with (human) urine, another squatted upon (it doesn't say whether the officer had pulled his pants down), one was booted, and yet another had been used as a foot stool.

Think about it. Those book are copies of some original. They were probably printed in the last couple of decades. They're just copies. They're nothing but pulp and ink. If we burn a thousand copies of the Quran (or the Bible, or Vedas, or the Pali Canon, or the Tao Te Ching, ...) there would still be thousands of the same exact volume around the world. Vandalizing a few (in the Guantanamo case) isn't at all the same as shredding extant ancient manuscripts/codices.

Some would turn the table and say, Won't you--a rationalist and an atheist-- become incensed were dozens of copies of Darwin's Origin of Species or Dawkins' The God Delusion or Sagan's Varieties of Scientific Experience ripped/burned/spitted on/defecated upon/etc.? Well, no. I've tried to imagine exactly that and while it's true that spit and sh*t per se are quite off-putting to me I find myself watching the whole thing with amusement as well as scientific detachment, observing how the perpetrators are trying to light my fire so to speak and perhaps even getting a kick out of what they're doing (as the Guantanamo soldiers probably did). I'd gladly vandalize and tear up any book I treasure--if you'll just reimburse me (and highlight the exact same passages). I simply have no problem with it. I don't venerate 9 x 5 x 1" sheaves of paper. I don't deem them sacred. For me there isn't such a thing as desecration of copies of a book. I don't fill my shelves with all that paper for the cellulose and ink. It's the ideas therein that are precious to me. The medium by which it arrives to me is just that--a medium. If I can get the same thing via a less tangible form such as the Internet, then it's pretty much the same to me (and in some cases I prefer digital copies since I can do a computer search on them--which of course makes finding specific quotes such a cinch).

What I do take issue with and feel quite strongly about is the destruction of originals, of one-offs, of things that are irreplaceable. Whether that be the giant Buddha stone statue blown up by the Taliban, or the Nag Hammadi manuscripts/codices, or the palimpsests of Archimedes, or the various ancient "originals" of the Quran--I would be one of the first voices to be heard if these were intentionally vandalized/destroyed for any reason at all. These are precious historical records. This is human history. They're portholes into the human mind. What we lost when the Library of Alexandria was gutted is unimaginable. What went up in smoke then (as far as we know) is forever lost. Even original religious texts are invaluable in this historical, archaeological, psychological, scientific, humanistic sense.

On the other hand, it does get my goat when a book is vandalized or destroyed for no reason at all, since it is a waste of materials, human labor, and fuel. I may not agree with what's in the book, I may not have even read it at all, but I am against destruction for destruction's sake or simply for kicks. Burning a thousand copies of the Quran would elicit nothing from me if not for the fact that it contributes to pollution and greenhouse gases, is a waste of the energy that went into making them, and forever precludes the reuse of nearly a ton of paper. In such a case I would rather that those thousand volumes had not been printed at all in the first place.

And need it be said that if destruction of a certain copy results in a person's loss of access to that particular version of the text, that too would be something that I'd think of as improper.

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