HE SPOKE OF IT with the delight of a small boy who had just knocked down a tower of blocks. ''It is easier to destroy than to build,'' said the Taliban minister bragging about the demolition of the ancient and immense Buddhas.
The 175- and 120-foot statues had loomed over the Afghan landscape for 1,500 years. Suddenly, in the name of religion, they were condemned to the Humpty Dumpty scrap heap. Just like that.
The Iranians called this act ''inhuman.'' An Indian leader called it ''satanic.'' The Germans compared it to Nazi book burning. Others amply labeled it ''barbaric.'' The world spoke with one voice - appalled that men could shatter a shared cultural heritage, wipe out 1,500 years with a destructive wave.
And through this worldwide indignation, the minister's callous defiant phrase kept running through my mind: It is easier to destroy than to build. Or than to leave something alone.
Just how much easier? As I share the sense of loss for something that I have never seen, my imagination runs from Afghanistan to the Arctic. We too are toying with the wrecker, with wounding something even older and even more universal than an icon of culture. An icon of nature: a wilderness.
Should the world muster its outrage at those who lay their hands on a heritage tens of millenniums older than the statues? Do we have the right to disturb something that also belongs to the past and the future?
Far from ancient trade routes and religious strife, Americans are engaged in a struggle about a place as remote and symbolic as the Buddhas of Bamiyan.
The searing argument about opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration is not cast as one religion against another but as energy against environment. The oilmen in the White House and the Senate insist that oil can be drained without affecting this pristine place or its inhabitants or even its motto: ''Where Wildlife Comes First.''
But the deeper divide is about preservation and destruction. Is a wilderness invaded and exploited still a wilderness? Will we be the demolition team?
I do not accept the promise of clean exploitation. Take a look at the Prudhoe Bay oil fields, with the spills and pollution. Nor do I accept the idea that we need this oil for our ''energy independence.'' How many times do we have to read that this wilderness will provide only 3.2 billion barrels over 10 years? That's what Americans use up in six months. We can save that much with modest changes in fuel efficiency.
Moreover, there is something smarmy in a Bush budget that already factors in the sale of Arctic oil leases as part of our surplus. Something sneaky about a trade-off buried in that budget offering to fund alternative energy with money from those oil leases. It's like promoting the sale of an SUV with the promise that a piece of the profit will go to solar cars.
But there is more at stake in this Arctic debate than dollars. It's our role as protectors, the idea that there is or ever will be any place on earth left wild, hands off.
The 19-million-acre Arctic refuge, with virtually no roads and no development, is as close to a shared natural heritage as we have left. It's a nesting ground for kinglets from Alabama, tundra swans from Maryland, and golden plovers from Massachusetts - natives who don't understand our borders and laws. It's where caribou migrate 400 miles to give birth.
In a world that has pushed nature into small reserves that resemble natural zoos, the Arctic refuge is a last frontier. In a world under plow and concrete, it's an untouched place where nature simply is. But if you touch it, how can it be untouched?
Americans once considered wilderness something to conquer. We're only now, imperfectly and gradually, coming to regard wilderness as something to protect. The word ''refuge'' means ''shelter or protection from danger, trouble, etc.'' But today the ''danger,'' the ''trouble.'' the ''etc.'' to the ''refuge'' in the Arctic refuge comes from the tribe of oilmen in the Bush administration.
On its 25th anniversary, Lowell Sumner, the biologist who helped found the refuge, compared it to the Statue of Liberty. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, he said, was also a symbol of freedom, the ''freedom to continue, unhindered and forever if we are willing, the particular story of Planet Earth unfolding here.''
Imagine the outrage if the Statue of Liberty were torn down like the Buddhas of Bamiyan. ''Barbaric.'' ''Satanic.'' Now we find out whether our leaders worship barrels of oil. It is always so easy to destroy.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.