Have you ever noticed that memorials that grieve the dead (war, genocide, etc) focus only on those lost and rarely make you think about "who" actually did the killing?
This always strikes me. Take the Vietnam Memorial, for example. Such a touching way to remember those terribly young boys who died. I remember my elementary school gym teacher leaning on the wall and crying during our 5th grade trip to Washington D.C. He lost dear friends.
Though some might, the memorial does not ask you to consider in what ways U.S. policy and paranoia about communism contributed to these deaths. It's as if they occurred in a vacuum. As if, let's say, Godzilla, landed and took all these nice young men.
That's not what happened.
The U.S. made a decision to invade another country, drafted young men, and sent them to Vietnam. They fought a long war which the Vietnamese still consider the U.S. lost and thousands of young men died.
The memorial does not ask us to think about policy questions.
This aspect of memorials haunts me especially when related to the Holocaust. These memorial leave visitors standing in the horror, the enormity of what happened, again without any way to think about what factors contributed to this.
The Holocaust Memorial Museum tries. I consider this museum a memorial because the space offers a permanent commemoration to the destruction of the Jews. The first floor shows you how the Nazis came to power, but after that you're just sucked into the Holocaust itself. The 'perpetrator' or the 'perpetrating' factors dissolve into the background as you wind around the exhibit looking at the myriad of ways people died and suffered.
What allowed this to happen? Maybe they do not know. Of course many visitors may ask themselves as they peruse the names of the thousands of towns completely decimated.
I think perhaps memorials want visitors and if they ask you to consider what aspects of humanity allow this to occur, we might be offended and avoid these sites.
For example, what about a memorial that had a series of mirrors that asked us to consider what parts of ourselves allow suffering. When do we betray our friends and neighbors? In what way have we ignored our own integrity to be accepted by the crowd...Maybe we did it yesterday or last week. We let a racist or misogynistic comment fly or we did not stand up for someone being targeted.
I am not saying we all need to take on the suffering of the world...that would only lead to a suffering world. I do however, think we need memorials that go beyond listing the sorrow. Of course the Holocaust Museum founders want to make sure such atrocities never happen again. NEVER AGAIN is written all throughout the museum. But there is no help as to how.
Perhaps this is what ultimately led me back to grad school. Living in Europe and seeing countless memorials commemorating WWI and WWII showed me the enormous footprint of those conflicts, providing no indication as to how to avoid repeats.
I asked the American University of Paris to help me understand the 20th Century and then asked the scholars/practitioners at George Mason's School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution how to prevent atrocity. They have ideas and so do many others.
People are working on these solutions-- they have not yet made Atrocity Prevention museums or memorials, but there is still time. The closest I have seen are documentaries like Claude Lanzmann's Shoah during which he very calmly interviews those who did the deeds or watched them happen without uttering a word. Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem similarly grapples with the mindset that allows crimes against humanity. Most do not.
Maybe years of watching American movies makes me yearn for a happy ending or at least a promise of a better future. Memorials in the 21st Century could contribute to this...Lincoln's Memorial actually offers a clue as to how to do this. His Gettysburg quote etched in the wall reminds visitors about, "the great task remaining before us."
It is great, indeed.