In his speech at the U.S. Army War College last Monday, President Bush stated, "Iraqis will write their own history and find their own way." To applause, the president promised, if the new Iraqi government agreed, to "demolish the Abu Ghraib prison." But to write their own history and chart their own way, the government and citizens of Iraq will need proof of what they endured during Saddam Hussein's rule and even afterward. Abu Ghraib prison is just such proof.
That's why, instead of being razed, Abu Ghraib should be turned into a museum.
It is tempting to get rid of symbols of a time when our world went awry. But it is a temptation we must resist if we are to succeed in forming a sense of conscience. As the French bishop Olivier de Berranger said in 1997, "Conscience is formed by memory, and no society can live in peace with itself on the basis of a false or repressed past any more than an individual can." His words (part of a statement of repentance for the Catholic Church's silence about the persecution and deportation of Jews during World War II) carried special power because of the place where he uttered them: a former transit camp outside Paris, in front of a sealed cattle car like the ones used in the early 1940s to transport more than 70,000 Jews to their deaths in Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp.
Whenever a nation passes through a trauma involving profound abuses of human rights and dignity, or when a people achieves a victory for human advancement, the facts of what transpired -- the actors and strategies involved and the final outcome -- all need to be substantiated so that people may use the memory of that event to reject or emulate past behavior.
In the same way that hikers in difficult terrain need cairns to mark their way, so do we all need physical markers to keep us off the wrong path of life. Imagine a world where no one had bothered to preserve the Slaves' House in Senegal, Nazi concentration camps, places of torture used by the dictatorship in Argentina, an almshouse in England, the internment camp for Japanese Americans at Manzanar, or the lonely church in South Africa's District Six, a colored neighborhood in Cape Town razed by the apartheid government to make way for a whites-only development. Imagine a world bereft of places associated with positive memories, a world in which we could not visit the birthplaces of Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King Jr.; or Val-Kill, where Eleanor Roosevelt drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; or Thomas Jefferson's home at Monticello. Imagine that, and you will have conjured a world that has abandoned the task of molding conscience.
I felt the power of place when I walked beneath an ominous guard tower through the barbed wire gates of Perm-36, a former Soviet labor camp. Now the Gulag Museum, Perm-36 was once home to some of Russia's leading political prisoners. It was also part of Joseph Stalin's scheme to industrialize Russia. More than 90 percent of Russian families claim someone who was sent to a labor camp. The bleak place speaks, as nothing else can, to the insanity and cruelty of it all -- the tiny, unheated cells, shared by four people in scanty clothing in sub-zero temperatures, the worm-infested gruel, the backbreaking work and the loss of contact with loved ones -- for up to 25 years -- simply for writing a poem, making a speech or just being young and strong and needed for the revolution.
The museum exhibits the lengths to which prisoners went in order to survive and keep their humanity intact. Their art, poems and stories have been lovingly preserved. Even the guards are remembered in ways that demonstrate just how trapped they felt. I left it, as do so many Russians, knowing that this nightmare had really taken place and wondering what could be done to prevent it from recurring in Russia and elsewhere. What was my responsibility in all of this?
That, of course, is the power of historic sites. Even in silence, they offer irrefutable evidence and raise questions that demand attention in the present.
When we eradicate physical evidence of a widely shared memory, we risk suggesting that neither the events nor the people who lived them are worthy of inclusion in the historical record. Even more dangerous, by obliterating historical markers -- documents, artifacts and sites -- a society invites the twisting and denying of truth.
Of course, in the short term, not everyone stands to gain by the presence of a historical marker. Saddam Hussein won't come out very well in any tour of a preserved Abu Ghraib. For that matter, neither will America, given its role in torturing Iraqis there more recently. That story, too, must be told and mined for lessons. The desire to be free of this symbol of malfeasance is no reason to destroy it. Indeed, it is a reason to preserve it.
Imagine if, instead of razing Abu Ghraib, Iraqis transformed it from an instrument of control and silence into an instrument of democracy and open discussion. Iraqis of every age and stripe could gather at the former prison to contemplate, as people do at the Terezin Memorial in the Czech Republic, the mystery of what turns one person into a perpetrator, another into a victim or a quiet bystander or a resister.
Iraq will stand a better chance of transforming itself into a democratic state if it embraces historic restoration and interpretation. Abu Ghraib prison is a good place to start. But the enterprise should not end there. Other places symbolizing significant events in the nation's recent history -- both good and bad -- should be preserved and interpreted. They should be places where civic dialogue may take place.
Around the world, curators of historic sites are realizing the role they can play in building democracy. In establishing the International Coalition of Historic Sites of Conscience in 1999, museum directors from Argentina, Bangladesh, the Czech Republic, England, Russia, Senegal, South Africa and the United States, including myself, wrote, "It is the obligation of historic sites to assist the public in drawing connections between the history of our site and its contemporary implications." We saw "promoting humanitarian and democratic values as a primary function." By preserving and interpreting Abu Ghraib prison, Iraq and the United States will improve their chances of fashioning a future in which both can take pride.