Sunday, December 17, 2006

Having spent the last two days castigating the stupidity of our local mass transit authority, it's time to return to a more substantial and important topic - a few more thoughts inspired by the Iranian "Holocaust validity conference."

As I noted in earlier posts on this topic, the apparent arrogance and stupidity of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in hosting such a conference mask a clever attempt to undercut the moral and political justification for the creation of Israel: if the Holocaust never happened, or even if it did and it was a European problem, why penalize the poor, innocent Palestinians by taking their land to compensate the Jewish people for a European crime? This is a question that resonates well with those who don't like the Jews, and with those who like using the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as a useful diversion from the failings of the Arab governments who ignore and abuse their own citizens.

It is also an example of what we might call "evil."

This affair has led me to re-read an interesting 2003 book by Lance Morrow titled Evil: An Investigation which analyzes the subject from many perspectives and with many examples for thought and discussion. One of the most interesting passages in the book begins on page 103 (of my hardcover edition), in which Morrow relates a visit with Holocaust survivor and historian Elie Wiesel to Sarajevo, Bosnia, at the height of the fearsome siege of the city in November of 1992. He documents his meetings with Serbs, Muslims, and Croats, all of whom had what they viewed as perfectly valid reasons for doing the horrible things they did to each other. And most of those reasons revolved around events that happened in the past, often in the far distant past, and they all used some variation of the slogan of those who would preserve the memory of the victims of the Holocaust: "Never Forget."

But Morrow asks an interesting question: "What happens when each tribe - Serbs, Croatians, Muslims, Kosovars, and so on - lives by the principle of Never Forget!? What if no one ever forgets? ... Remembering is indispensable. Evils arise from not remembering (those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it, etc, etc.). But evils, terrible evils, also arise from not forgetting. Obsessive memory mandates revenge."

This is one of the most profound observations I've read in a long time, and it bears some reflection. The Jews will Never Forget the Holocaust. The Serbs will Never Forget the Battle of Kosovo. American Blacks will Never Forget slavery. The Armenians will Never Forget the 1915-1917 genocide at the hands of the Turks. And so it goes.

What if no one ever forgets?

I believe Mr Morrow was right - that much evil grows from obsessive memory, from memory that remembers only the injustice, the us-versus-them, the never give an inch because look what they did to us last time. Does this mean that we need to just put old injuries aside and let byegones be byegones? Of course not. If we forget completely, we fall into Santayana's trap of repeating the evil. But at some point, we have to decide that the time has come for some level of acceptance of the past, if not full forgiveness of the evil. When those who perpetrated the original evil have died and there's no one left to punish except their children and grandchildren. No one benefits when the present is driven by the horrors of the past. It's not hard to imagine the economic and social benefits of a Middle East in which people choose to work together rather than constantly battle each other. The Sunnis and the Shiites could rebuild a stable and prosperous Iraq except for the constant shadow of the Battle of Karbala in 680 CE. American Blacks could improve their economic and social situation with more focus on education and less on a sense of entitlement for wrongs perpetrated more than a century ago.

What if no one ever forgets?

Then, as Morrow writes, "...we all eventually live in the same cemetery, and tell stories about what it was like in the days before our universes of incompatible memory collided and made such fission. What life is that?"

What life, indeed.

Have a good day. More thoughts coming.


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