Of all the stunning, troubling, passionate images to emerge from the chaos of Egypt this week, the one that moved me most was a video clip of citizens linked arm-in-arm all the way around the Egyptian Museum in Cairo as they formed a cordon to protect the artifacts from looters. Instinctively, these brave citizens were claiming the tangible symbols of their ancient heritage as part of their stake in the future of Egypt as the free, progressive nation they envision.
The looting and destruction of antiquities is a treacherous consequence of war, civil unrest and invasive conquests everywhere. We may never know how much of Iraq’s heritage disappeared in the terrible destruction of the recent war there. We know that priceless works of art remain missing from European museums six decades after the Nazi invasions. The Parthenon marbles continue to reside at the British Museum in spite of Greece’s demand that Great Britain repatriate these pieces removed from the Acropolis. Even more ancient works of art — pre-Columbian figurines and the like — repeatedly show up in the most unlikely hands.
The riots and demonstrations in Cairo and elsewhere in Egypt, Tunisia and other nations is evidence of the unquenchable human need for freedom. Tyrants come in all forms, even in suit and tie. While Egypt appears to be more modern than many other nations, the people have no opportunity to elect their own leaders, which is the essence of democracy. The fact that the Egyptian government’s response to the protests was a communications blackout — blocking cell phones, the internet, broadcast journalism — is clear evidence that President Mubarak has no respect for human rights.
The right to speak, to communicate, to criticize the government, to protest, to vote — these are all essential components of human rights in our world today. Repressive governments continue to flourish around the world. The United States must do business with many of them — witness the recent meetings with Chinese leaders — and certainly cannot go to war again unless absolutely essential for our own defense. But neither can the U.S. appear to be overlooking human rights abuses and the repression of civil liberties for the sake of maintaining good business relationships.
We must hold our own leaders accountable for calling out the tyrants of the world, insisting that human rights abuses come to light, that reforms in favor of freedom are essential to secure our business and economic support. Too often, American leaders have remained silent in the face of repression because speaking out might endanger our business relationships.
The U.S. should also exert leadership in every way possible to safeguard the heritage of nations. Civilized people understand that the preservation of ancient artifacts is not simply an aesthetic choice of well-educated elites, but rather, an integral part of preserving the essential assets of human history for future generations. Looting antiquities cannot be accepted as any form of legitimate protest. None of us owns history, but all of us have an obligation to ensure its most accurate and complete conveyance for the future. Whether that responsibility is exercised in ensuring that we teach the truth about our own history in our schools, or in protecting the tangible artifacts of history across time, the heirs of contemporary civilization will only know the past through what we preserve and pass on to them.