French officials recently inaugurated a commemoration of a dark part of their nation's history: the largest mass arrests of Jews in France, July, 1942. More than 13,000 people were deported to death camps in a matter of days. The New York Times reported, "The national police are exhibiting for the first time the documents that record the operation in cold administrative detail."
Prior to the commemorative events, officials suppressed this information, in a "tangle of pride, guilt and shame" that reflected French opinion generally. Much of the documentation of the historical events was ordered destroyed after the Second World War ended.
In opening the commemorative events, the Paris police prefect said the government is "conscious of the duty of memory that is incumbent upon it." This statement is in sharp contrast to the position of former French President François Mitterrand, who declared in 1992, "Let us not ask for an accounting" of what happened during the war.
Americans are no strangers to willful denial of the past. American presidents have called for forgetting the past, not investigating wrongs of prior administrations, insisting that America is only and always the "good guy" on the planet. Indeed, this is a core ingredient of assertions that America is "exceptional."
It is strange that there is a Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., to commemorate what the Nazis did in WWII, but no museum to acknowledge what a long series of United States governments did in the anti-Indian wars that are inextricable from American history. There is no American Indian Holocaust Museum, even though there are documented incidents in which mass killings, not just mass arrests, occurred across the continent over decades.
Exactly what is the "duty of memory"? Do we have a duty to remember anything? We know the adage from George Santayana, that "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." But what if we want to repeat the past? What if the past is celebrated, not mourned and commemorated?
There's an awful lot of American flag-waving at Indian Powwows, despite the bloody, anti-Indian history associated with that flag. Does this mean Indians have no memories? Does it mean they celebrate their Holocaust? This is a phenomenon discovered by some who have worked with colonialism: Frantz Fanon, for example, studying Africa, noted that colonized people strive to emulate the culture and ideas of their oppressors.
It seems that the first "duty of memory" is to remember. And how do we remember? By searching out the past, looking for evidence, facing facts, poking through facades, ignoring excuses, refusing lies.
Last year, President Obama ordered the creation of an "Atrocity Prevention Board," saying, "Preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States." He also said, "America's reputation suffers, and our ability to bring about change is constrained, when we are perceived as idle in the face of mass atrocities and genocide." He added, "history has taught us that our pursuit of a world where states do not systematically slaughter civilians will not come to fruition without concerted and coordinated effort."
One wonders whether America might do better to start with cleaning its own house, starting with its memory of its history. The U.S. cannot claim clean hands on the issue of mass atrocities and genocide. It cannot claim immunity from the charge of systematic slaughter. In Fanon's words, these historical events leave behind "germs of rot which we must clinically detect and remove from our land [and] from our minds…."
Only when we have removed the rot of historical denial and replaced it with the fresh air of historical memory are we able to say we have carried out the "duty of memory." Only then may we say we are ready to prevent atrocity and genocide.
When Secretary of State Clinton spoke at the Holocaust Museum in July of this year, she praised Obama's Atrocity Prevention Board, saying it is a means to "galvanize efforts across our government to focus on prevention, to ensure that all our tools and resources are being put to good use." We'll see if all our tools and resources are being put to good use when we see whether any effort is directed at the duty of memory, at discovering, uncovering, acknowledging, and commemorating the historical evidence of the U.S. as a fomenter of atrocities.
If the U.S. wants to take the high ground in the 21st century as a bulwark against state atrocities, it will need the credibility that can only come from admitting one's own faults, one's complicity in the evils that one now wishes to prevent. In short, there must be an atonement for wrongdoings to give foundation to a commitment to do the right thing.
The duty of memory is first and foremost a duty of acknowledgment and reparation.
Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. Staff attorney in Dinebeiina Nahiilna Be Agaditahe Navajo Legal Services, 1968-1970. Taught Legal Studies at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002. Consulting attorney on indigenous issues.