The Ethical Spectacle, April 1995, http://www.spectacle.org

Genocide--an Eternal Crimson Braid

I was tempted to title this article "Its Happening Again," but it has never stopped happening. Governmental murder of groups of people because of their ethnic or religious identity has happened, somewhere or other, every year, somewhere in the world. Germans murdered Jews everywhere in Europe, the Israelis killed Arabs at Deir Yassin , Turks murdered Armenians, Hutus murdered Tutsis in Rwanda, Serbs are killing Moslems in Bosnia, and the beat goes on.

Excerpt from an article in the December 31, 1994 New York Times:

Then, she says, Mr. Viskovic forced them out of the apartment. Outside, he pointed his weapon at Mrs. Sestovic and made her lie down on the road. Then he ordered her to crawl along the road as he kicked her repeatedly. Finally, she and the two teenagers were pushed into a small bus filled with Muslims and taken to the Susica camp.

Conditions at the camp, where a former Serbian guard has said up to 3,000 Muslims were killed over four months, were appalling.

Mrs. Sestovic is particularly haunted by the memory of seeing two men--Durmo Handzic and Izmet Dedic--beaten to death, by recurrent nightmares about another Muslim whose ear was progressively sliced off on four consecutive nights by Serbian guards and by the recollection of the commander of the camp, Dragan Nikolic, holding up a cigarette butt and saying, "This is now worth more than all of your Muslim lives put together."

There is nothing new, no revelation, in the fact that there is evil and darkness in the world. The ethical spectacle lies in our reaction to it, which is similar to the phenomenon of dreaming. A dream is an attempt to shield the dreamer from an anxious thought and avoid the necessity of waking up. A wish fulfillment particularly protects the sleeper by telling him that a particular need has been met, so that he need not wake up to take care of it.

There is a Holocaust Museum in Washington. I have not been there yet, but here are some reactions to the museum gathered by Philip Gourevitch, writing in the New York Times Sunday Magazine for February 12, 1995. (According to the article, a survey showed that the Holocaust Museum elicits a "highly" or "extremely favorable" reaction from 94% of its visitors.)

"Pretty neat, huh...I mean, really sick."..."Awesome.... Intense...Creepy...Graphic...Cool."..."It was fun"..."I believe the Jews are God's chosen people. But they don't recognize that Jesus Christ is the messiah, that He came already. If they had, I think the Lord could have heard their prayers a lot more."..."one-sided Jewish propaganda"...

The declared mission of the Museum is to bear witness to the horrors of the Nazi past. Gourevitch observes:

The museum's overwhelming popularity testifies, however, to the great difference between bearing direct witness to history and bearing witness to the documentary representation of historical events at half a century's remove.

The general public, after all, is not lining up each day to gain first-hand experience of the Rwandan genocide or the "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia. Rather, as Nona Reiss, a 47-year old homemaker from New City, N.Y., tells me: "We know the atrocities that happen in the world right now. And what are we doing? Sitting in a museum."

The Holocaust should not be forgotten. Museums that rub our faces in history have a place. The irony is that such places may undermine their mission: they may make us complacent. We went, we saw, we suffered and felt great indignation, and now we have left the museum and may forget. We may feel good about ourselves now, because we felt sorry for the Jews, but, in reality, we have done nothing, changed nothing. Our leaders will still shy away from any intervention in Bosnia, any forceful attempt to prevent these new Nazis from their murders. For a few minutes in the museum, perhaps, we were upset that our great country, the United States, did not intervene, would not even fly bombing missions against the railroads ferrying innocent victims to Auschwitz. We may have wondered how the world could have stood by, complacently, for so many years as Germany murdered the Jews. In the Holocaust museum, we may buy buttons which say "Remember" and "Never Again". These buttons might as well say, "Self-deception" and "Always", because it IS happening again , it has always been happening, and we are doing nothing.