I do not oppose the establishment of a Holocaust Memorial on the Mall. I simply don't understand it.
Unquestionably, the Holocaust stands out as one of the darkest periods of human history. The slaughter of millions of defenseless human beings, most of them Jews; the cold-blooded, deliberate attempt to annihilate an entire people; the failure of the rest of the world to do as much as it might have to stop that massive horror: these things must not be forgotten.
But isn't there a difference between remembering and memorializing? To my mind, there is. It is the difference between insisting, on the one hand, that our history books record the shame and the horror of slavery, or give due credit to the heroes, white and black, who helped to end it, and, on the other hand, building a memorial to slavery. It is the difference between remembering the savagery of the lynch mobs and building bronze reproductions of lynch scenes to memorialize them. Memorials are, to me at least, for heroes and heroism, not for villains and villainy.
That is one of the things I don't understand about the Holocaust Memorial. The other is that it should be an official American memorial. Neither the victims nor the perpetrators of that unspeakable horror were Americans. Why should a memorial to it, assuming there should be one, belong on the national Mall alongside the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial and other memorials to American heroes?
I am not alone in my confusion. I've just been talking to a Howard University professor who thinks there ought to be an official memorial to slavery. But the more we talked, the clearer it became that the main reason he wants a Slavery Memorial is because there is going to be a Holocaust Memorial. He resents the implication of black powerlessness in the fact that we will be memorializing a non-American horror involving Jews and not memorializing an American horror whose victims were black.
I've also been talking with a Jewish friend who, while he thinks my distinction between remembering and memorializing is artificial, fears that putting the Holocaust Memorial in a public place easily accessible to tourists with a thousand and one other things on their minds will serve to trivialize the special horror of the Holocaust. His preference would be for an off-the- beaten-path location for visitors who will seek it out, much as they do now for the Kennedy gravesite.
He and I agree that it might be a very good thing if the Holocaust Memorial could evoke the sense of almost-sacred awe that we feel on quiet mornings at the Lincoln Memorial, before the tourists arrive with their shorts and halters, their cameras and popcorn and their boisterous children. We both doubt that it will.
And I've been talking to another friend whose doubts echo my own, and more.
"What next?" she wonders. "A memorial to the million wiped out during the Nigerian civil war? The Hindus and Moslems mutually exterminated? The victims of the Coventry firebombing? Rotterdam? Armenians massacred by Turks? The Mall ain't big enough.
"But it isn't just the memorial on the Mall that the mind boggles at," she says. "It is the solemn declarations that this will constitute a pledge that nothing of the sort will ever be permitted to happen again.
"It is happening. Right now. In many places. And, in Southeast Asia, on nearly the same scale, and without your permission, gentlemen. And what do you propose to do about it?
"Nothing, I hope. Whatever you do cannot make things any better, and may make them worse. So how would it be to come down off that high horse and look around close to home and see if there are any little improvements of a practical sort that you could set your hand to?"