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.”