In the last few days, several bloggers were engaged in a captivating discussion. What triggered it was the strong and controversial statements that Professor Lawrence Rothfield, director of the University of Chicago's Cultural Policy Center, made first to the Guardian, and then repeated at the ARCA conference in Amelia, Italy.  Unfortunately, I was not able to attend the debate. However, as I gathered from the conference summary, Professor Rothfield suggested that it would be a good idea to arm local guards or to create militarised police forces to defend sites that are at great risk in times of war or political unrest. It appears that his position was opposed by the more moderate voice of Laurie Rush, Fort Drum's cultural resources manager, who advocated  a non-violent approach that relied mainly on local authorities to secure important sites against looters.

As said before, the debate continued on the web where, in some instances, Professor Rothfield's critics vigorously titled their posts to suggest that he was supporting drastic and, if necessary, violent solutions to the problem. To give you an example, a post was titled in a provocative and quite misleading way Death to looters!  . Even though, I firmly believe that Rothfield's positions need to be discussed and critically analysed, I doubt that this could be achieved through extremisation and demonisation of the same.

As I understand it, the point here is to understand if weapons, and in general armed guards can work as an effective deterrent for looters, and in particular for gangs of organised and well equipped thieves. Well, first of all I think that in this discussion the biggest mistakes would be generalisation and simplification. It is very difficult to find a mathematical formula to solve this problem, may be a case by case approach would be more productive. Theft and looting are a huge problem for all the countries that have a rich cultural and archaeological patrimony - so called 'source countries'. Some of these countries can be considered politically and socially more stable, others are at war, others are under occupation, and others are facing a complex  transition phase. The question is, can the problem be solved in the same way in in every circumstance? I do not think so! Too many are the factors and the variables that need to be taken into consideration when analyzing this issue. 
An important question is:
In what kind of internal situation this heritage police would have to operate in? And who should they answer to?

For instance in a country like Italy, where the political situation is relatively stable,  the protection of the national cultural heritage is  entrusted to a special military police, the Carabinieri per la Tutela del Patrimonio Culturale. They are organised, educated, armed, equipped, and most importantly paid to control the territory, recover artifacts and stop the tombaroli. Yet, the problem is under control, but certainly not solved. Why is it so? Well, fist of all it is a matter of money. Resources and men are obviously insufficient and the territory, as well as the patrimony, is too vast and difficult to control. 

In the international panorama Italy can be considered as one of the best examples that I could have given to you. However, we should now start looking into countries where the political and social situation is not so stable; where war, poverty and unemployment are serious; or where conflict has created a serious power vacuum. 

Answering to one of his detractors Professor Rothfield questioned:
If you don't like my idea, I would like to hear what you suggest should be done to keep museums, archaeological sites, and storehouses safe during times when the normal policing power of the state disappears

Well, no doubt that in these situations one of the first things that will disappear is law enforcement. Stability is necessary for the law to be respected, and in these cases it usually takes a long of time before it is reached and even longer before law and order are reestablished. I agree with Professor Rothfield when he states that it is exactly in this phase that archaeological sites and museums are most in danger. However, I also recognize that this is the phase in which armed guards are more likely to fail their task. 

It is a matter of priorities, resources and motivation. 

Let's assume that these guards were trained, armed and employed before the break out of hostilities or the beginning of civil upheaval. What would keep them in their position? Certainly not pure love and respect for cultural heritage, or at least not for all of them. Some would be asking to themselves if it is worth dying for stones and ruins, others would wonder when and if they are going to receive their wages again, others would probably assume that it would be better to use the weapons for other purposes and turn into subsistence looters themselves. I am aware that in the past some people acted heroically in order to protect their cultural heritage, I deeply admire those people. Being realistic though, I believe that heroes are way too few!

Going back to a less abstract example. 

Afghanistan is a country that, devastated by decades of war, is now supposedly in a transition phase. The international coalition is involved in a series of programs to train and sponsor the national army and the national police, preparing to hand out complete control to the Afghan authorities on the day they will leave the country. However, few know that the Afghan Minister of Interiors also employs around 400 guards specifically assigned to the protection of cultural heritage sites. This sounds brilliant, but as Abdul Wasey Ferozi (former General Director of the Institute of Archaeology) points out, when interviewed by Johanie Meharry, these men are too few and badly equipped to be able to protect Afghanistan's immense patrimony of archeological sites. Underpaid and little trained, this Afghan Heritage Police is not in the position of assuring effective control across the country. 

Moreover, it seems that the authority of the central government is incapable of reaching many of the remote areas of the country, and local warlords are still extremely powerful and surely interested in getting involved in the global industry of stolen Afghan antiquities, which is worth billions. Writing for the Daily outlook Afghanistan, Abdul Samad Haidari describes how looters have discovered and plundered Kharwar, a 7th century city, blocking the access to several government and UN missions. And 'when the government subsequently sent nine police officers, four of them were murdered and the rest fled' (Abdul Samad Haidari, June 01, 2011)

I totally understand Professor Rothfield's concerns and his desire to find a solution; but what I am asking to myself is: 
are weapons the real solution? 
Should we not try to focus our attention away from the source countries? 
Instead of opting for a dangerous quick fix,  throwing money on arming guards, should we not start analyzing the causes of the problem and suggest long term solutions? 
Where does the priority lie? I have the feeling that the answer is not in 'more guards, more money, more weapons'; but in a stronger control over the international market of antiquities, in an effective system of law enforcement in western countries and in a range of severe sanctions for all those involved in the trade of illicit antiquities.

And if I am allowed to speculate at a higher level, I believe that the real deterrent would be a fair redistribution of global resources to assure equal opportunities that would lead to a real (not an imposed) sense of stability and security.

Patrizia La Piscopia

Arm museum guards to prevent looting, says professor
Dorothy King's PHDIVA
Death to Looters!
Summary of the ARCA Annual Conference in the Study of Art Crime
Plunder Goes on Across Afghanistan as Looters Grow Even Bolder
Heritage police' will guard British archaeological sites
Authorities look to create police unit for cultural heritage