The religious zealots who blew up Palmyra no doubt knew little or nothing of its past, so they could not have recognized the irony of their vandalism; and anyway irony has no place in their hideously absolutist worldview. The irony is that they destroyed the remains of a city that was, in its extraordinary social and cultural diversity, truly the antithesis of everything they believe.

Palmyra, in its heyday during the first three centuries of the Common Era, was one of the ancient capitals of what scholars call syncretism and the rest of us call pluralism. It was a Middle Eastern destination on the Silk Road, a caravan city raised on an oasis in the Tadmurean desert that was situated on an important trade route. Its architectural and epigraphic remains portray a motley city formed in its character by Rome to the west and Persia to the east; Hellenistic and Central Asian influences mingled with Amorite, Aramaean, and Arab elements. In Palmyra one could find Greek sculpture and Chinese silk…

But whose responsibility is it to protect this common heritage? Is it America’s? Not ours; no, sir. America is not the keeper of other people’s antiquities. America is not the keeper of other people’s liberties. America is not the keeper of other people’s rights. America is not the keeper of other people’s borders. Not after that last war; no, sir. We are the keepers only of ourselves, and of our president’s “legacy.” We practice a doctrine of strategic detachment and wrap ourselves in rectitude about it. To the persecuted of the world, to the dissidents, to the refugees, to the raped and the enslaved, to the victims of chemical weapons in a country where the United States was supposed to have confiscated all the chemical weapons, America says sauve qui peut.