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Insight: The Death of Innocents: The Luxor Massacre Volume 51 Number 2, March/April 1998
by James Wiseman

The massacre last November 17 of 58 foreign tourists and four Egyptians at the Temple of Hatshepsut, one of the great archaeological attractions of Egypt, captured the world's attention because of the number of victims, the horrific accounts of the survivors, and the savagery of the assailants. Eyewitnesses described how most of the victims, trapped on the raised terrace of the temple complex's middle courtyard, were killed by six men armed with knives and automatic weapons. Many of the tourists who tried to hide in the colonnades at the rear of the courtyard were hunted down and slain. The victims included 35 Swiss and a foreign resident of Switzerland; nine Japanese, including four couples on their honeymoons; six Britons, including a young mother and her baby; four Germans, a Bulgarian, a Colombian, and a Frenchman.

A unit of El-Gamaa El-Islamiya (the Islamic Group), a militant fundamentalist organization, immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, but said its men had intended only to detain tourists to force the release of their spiritual leader, Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman, who is serving a life sentence in a federal prison in the United States for masterminding the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York. President Mubarak visited the Temple of Hatshepsut the day after the massacre and announced that stronger measures would be taken to protect foreign tourists. Security was to be increased at sites throughout the country: more police and soldiers armed with more sophisticated weapons would be on hand to guard tourists, and helicopters would begin patrolling the Nile. For the time being, tour buses would not be permitted to travel south of Aswan, and visitors to the famous Temple of Ramses II at Abu Simbel would have to get there by air. At an all-day meeting at the Temple of Hatshepsut, the ambassadors to Egypt from Muslim countries, Egyptian government officials, members of parliament, various celebrities, and the media denounced the murders and those responsible for them. The Egyptians also apologized to the families of the dead.

How do we react to such an act? Is there an appropriate response that goes beyond disgust with the killings and sympathy for the victims and their families? "It is beyond understanding," was the comment of Hans Wiesner to Alan Cowell of the New York Times. Wiesner was a representative of a tour company who accompanied ten of the wounded survivors of the massacre on a chartered plane from Cairo to Zürich. What was in the minds and hearts of the killers? Some might suggest that if we could understand their thinking we could prevent such an atrocity from recurring. Others might conclude the world is too interested in what is in the minds of killers and too little interested in the suffering of their victims, that justice needs to be served. Indeed, the relentless pursuit of terrorists and their capture and trial before competent courts of justice have now become international in scope, though they lack the cooperation of some countries.

These are murky waters, however. International courts may judge participants in war and revolution for "crimes against humanity," but what court is prepared to judge a revolution or civil war? We have observed within the past decade the reluctance of the world to intervene in the wars in Yugoslavia, or Rwanda, or other disintegrating countries. On a personal level, we can openly reaffirm our belief in the principle of social interaction in a multicultural world, the toleration of religious and ethnic differences, and the peaceful mediation of political differences. Rational people can only hope for tolerance, which is precisely what the zealot, or terrorist, cannot abide.

James Wiseman is a contributing editor to ARCHAEOLOGY and a professor of archaeology, art history, and classics at Boston University.

© 1998 by the Archaeological Institute of America