We all know one or more versions of the saying that unless we remember and learn from history, we will be doomed to repeat it. We also have ingrained in us the wonders of democracy that are part of the freedom of speech, the freedom of thought, and of course the boundless freedom to learn.
As it turns out, learning from history is anything but easy when we are learning about ourselves. And although September 11th and the tragic deaths and destruction of so many lives promises to be a powerful and poignant set of memories for time to come, there is also danger that we turn it into myth and superstition, from which there is no possibility of learning anything at all.
We, the United States, went into Iraq with no evidence of weapons of mass destruction, other than those fabricated. We went into war with our journalistic integrity at an all time low, in that newspapers reported what the Pentagon gave them, not what their reporters investigated. The war and its beginnings are seen as the type of conversation suitable for late night comedy.
In other words, from the war itself to the wars that have spread beyond Afghanistan, to the reports of American soldiers involved in prolonged and widespread acts of torture, we have seen what otherwise might arouse our suspicions, our worry and our deep sense of regard for the truth and for our national integrity, go largely unvisited.
We seem to be at a crossroads where moral and intellectual integrity meets their opposing forces. In general, when it comes to American history after September 11, 2001, it seems to me that we owe it not only to the memories of those who perished but to ourselves and those who come after us to investigate, to probe, to find the truth.
Of course, this goes not only for the events of war but to the financial and lifestyle issues that confront us, in terms of whether we decide as a country to keep seeing things in black and white, easy right or wrong, or whether we are loyal to the values involved in getting to the truth of what is wrong, and to a constructive investigation and collaboration as to what might help. This would mean obviously, that we need to acknowledge that seeing is believing rather than deciding what we think and what we do without evidence or the wish to learn what may be outside of our assumptions or those "given" to us.
One of the difficulties in engaging in investigation has to do with what we will find regarding not only other people but regarding ourselves. As one example that seems crucial, those Americans who engaged in torture have not been called upon to tell us their stories. We have looked at some scenes and then turned away in disgust, shame or disbelief. We have had a hard time recognizing how human beings can sink to degradation and sadism when confronted by murder, helplessness, rape, and the hyperactive lust for the kill which people have seemed to have forever.
Psychologically speaking, if we don't know the shadows of our own evil, then we will never tame them. We will find them in others and insist on killing those others, insist to the end that we are the victims even though the line is so very thin between victim and victimizer, between bully and bullied.
We see the impact of this in our headlines every day. One of the reasons we have been so unsuccessful in really grappling with the bullying of our children is that we prefer to start and stop with capturing and vilifying the "bad" one, instead of seeing just how much those of us on the sidelines are prone to demonizing and, in some cases, to being demonized.
The truth is that the best and the worst are inside us. Germans aren't the only ones who have the capacity for Nazi torture. It is part of the human condition, not to be evil per se, but to have urges of all kinds that need to be studied so we can learn to tame them.
We do know, though perhaps only intellectually, that abuse leads to abuse. Some of us have learned -- experienced -- how getting to know the most personal of stories of people and their circumstances humanizes the "other," not so we can condone torture but so we can welcome the traumatized into the human community and so we can be humble about how often there but for fortune might go any one of us.
"Learning" from history, and even from the acts of the present in terms of their cruelty and harshness of judgment and condemnation, is not a solely intellectual endeavor. It can sicken us to know that our sons and daughters, lovers and friends, our parents and we ourselves might be capable of the worst speech and behavior under some conditions. However, our collective response has been to keep our heads in the sand, lay claim to moral superiority until another "hero" bites the dust in scandals of corruption of sexual perversion or at least illegal activity. We scapegoat and certainly leave with no quest for understanding or truth.
If America is the land of the brave, that for me would include increasing and exercising our courage to get to know the deepest and darkest secrets that constitute the truth. If we are truly to be free, this education and commitment to awareness and information, are nothing less than mandatory.
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