Americans have a habit -- often considered a virtue, which it often is--of looking on the bright side of life. But occasionally it is salutary to look at the dark side. In a few years, Americans will be able to do this in Washington, adjacent to the Mall, in two old buildings the government has allocated for a Holocaust museum.

This decision to locate a grim, disturbing display amidst the Mall's patriotic and celebratory symbols may cause controversy. But the decision is wise.

The Mall, one of the world's magnificent urban spaces, is a shrine to which Americans come as pilgrims. Its openness is an analogue of our society; its vistas open receptive minds to the symmetry and temperateness of our political arrangements.

But the Mall has no single motif. It is surrounded by museums and monuments, art galleries and government offices. The latest addition to the Mall, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, is designed to remind visitors of some sobering experiences and stern values. It occupies prime public land because the government decided that it is in the public interest for the public to contemplate these experiences and values.

Government performs many such pedagogic functions, from providing public schools to organizing patriotic observances designed to arouse civic sentiments. The government created the Holocaust Memorial Council, which will raise private funds for the museum. The council already has done much to add the annual Days of Remembrance (in mid-April), the anniversary of the liberation of the camps, to our liturgy of civic religion.

But some persons will ask: what has the Holocaust to do with this nation? That is a fair question. The answer is that no other nation has broader, graver responsibilities in the world, so no other nation more needs citizens trained to look life in the face.

Leave aside the scandal of this nation and its allies--the fact that they did not act on the knowledge that the Holocaust was occurring. They refused, for example, to bomb the rail lines and crematoria at Auschwitz when 10,000 people were dying there daily. Never mind. The museum should be an institution of understanding, not accusation.

The theme of the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem is: remember. But remembrance without understanding is betrayal. It occurs when people try to democratize the Holocaust, making it something general, symbolic, abstract and other than a Jewish catastrophe.

Yes, before the killing of Jews became systematic, the killing of the mentally retarded was systematic in Germany. Yes, the Nazis killed gypsies and others. Yes, Mao and Stalin were much more prolific killers than Hitler. Yes, between 1975 and 1980 the Khmer Rouge did to Cambodia what the Black Death did to Europe in the 14th century.

But we falsify and trivialize the Holocaust when we bend it to our convenience, making it a symbol--of general beastliness, or whatever. It was not a symbol; it was a fact. The flight into such generalities is a flinching from this fact: the Holocaust was directed murderously against particular victims --Jews. Their tragedy cannot be appropriated by others as a useful metaphor.

However, a general good for the nation can flow from an unblinking understanding of it.

The two shattering events of modern politics were the First World War and the Holocaust. The war shattered governments and empires, and patterns of civility, clearing the ground for primitivism. The Holocaust--the eruption of primitivism in the heart of our civilization--overturned the idea that there are limits on evil.

What is life like when lived beyond a sense of limits? You could tell from the smoke the sort of persons consumed in the crematoria. Newcomers to Auschwitz, who still had some fat on their bones, made black smoke. Persons who had been there for awhile made white smoke. There: that is an emblematic fact of 20th century politics.

The Holocaust was the bureaucratization, almost the domestication, of the most volatile passion, hatred. The memory of the Holocaust is the black sun into which we cannot bear to stare. But we should stare, because this mentally soft republic is threatened by the inability of its citizens to comprehend how radically the untamed world-- from the brutalized elite in the Kremlin to the pandemic savagery of El Salvador--differs from their mild experiences and assumptions.

The Holocaust museum, located at the epicenter of our collective life, can be a mind-opening reminder of the furies beyond our shores. The museum is needed because nothing in nature is more remarkable, or dangerous, than the recuperative power of innocence in a liberal society.