For the United States president, the social media site Twitter has become a valid channel for feelings, thoughts, and ideas. Following his Twitter posts is like gaining a window into his mind.
Over the weekend, for instance, Mr. Donald Trump tweeted that the US had “targeted 52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago), some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD. The USA wants no more threats!”
Trump was anticipating retaliatory attacks by Iran after he ordered the killing, through a drone strike, of Major General Qassem Suleimani, a ranking military official of the Iranian government, in what the White House claimed this was a pre-emptive strike. The Iranians have since warned of attacks.
Afterward, the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, clarified Trump’s words and said whatever would be done in a military engagement with Iran would be within the bounds of the law.
Targeting cultural sites is prohibited by international conventions signed in Geneva and The Hague. In 2017, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2347, which deplored the “unlawful destruction of cultural heritage, religious sites and artefacts, and the smuggling of cultural property by terrorist groups during armed conflict, affirming that such attacks might constitute a war crime and must be brought to justice.”
But on board Air Force One, after spending the holidays at his Florida resort, Trump was again adamant, telling reporters: “They’re allowed to kill our people. They’re allowed to torture and maim our people. They’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people. And we’re not allowed to touch their cultural sites? It doesn’t work that way.”
This time, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said that the US will “follow the laws of armed conflict,” including those that ruled out targeting cultural sites.
Cultural sites are always sacred ground, and international laws that protect them must be heeded. They preserve a nation’s heritage that will tell future generations how they lived. They embody what is traditional and unique about a certain people, given their history, while celebrating the universality of art and beauty. Indeed these should be spared from the ravages of war and other fleeting, foolish decisions made by those who believe their personal glory trumps everything.
Of course, nobody expects the US president to be mindful of international law at this point. After all, he did defy norms by ordering the assassination of an official of another government, and without following the usual chain of decision making as expected of a logical individual. We hope Iran’s many cultural treasures—like the treasures of every other place on earth—will transcend the destruction caused by strife, violence, and ego.