While We Build Monuments, Butchers Remain at Large

There’s a new monument in Washington, D.C. honoring the

Japanese-Americans who were wrongfully interned during the Second World War, as

well as those who fought in the United States armed forces. Well, why not? It

is the height of fashion to make much of the mistakes-even the crimes-of the

past, and there is no doubt that many years ago, Japanese-Americans got the

feces-dipped end of the stick.

The events commemorated by this cenotaph took place so long

ago that few of those thus wronged can still be among us-yet if it brings them

a measure of solace, so be it. But a small mouse by the side of my computer

suggests that this may be another of those acts of resentment by which the past

is used to put a sharp elbow into the ribs of the living, in this case the

dreaded white male hegemon. Perhaps non-Japanese-Americans might attempt to

shame the Japanese government into putting up a marker of some kind

commemorating the objects of Japanese atrocities way back then.

In no time at all, this kind of thing could get seriously

out of hand. Every group, every religion and every nationality can look back to

a moment when terrible crimes were done to it, and each one does therefore have

some claim (albeit somewhat exiguous) to raise a shaft in memoriam. In a short

time, Washington-which is already halfway there-will come to resemble a

cemetery. But it won’t be a cemetery, exactly: It will be a garden of grudges,

a place where some of the most fortunate people in history can buff and polish

the mask of anger at brutalities inflicted on their forefathers and

foremothers.

Recently, another group has come forward with the proposal

that a monument be erected marking the life and accomplishments of John Adams,

the second President of the United States. Evidently, the backers of this project

believe that two centuries of statuelessness is long enough for Mr. Adams.

Conversely, though, it could be asked why, if he’s gotten along for 200 years

without cluttering the streets of the District of Columbia with his visage, he

has to pop up now? Of course, he was a grumpy sort, and it’s possible his

discontented spirit-Adams lost his bid for reelection-has been troubling the

worthies pushing the statue idea.

As far as I can judge, the proponents are the most WASP-y of

WASP’s, or people of a not-quite-WASP ancestry who have bought the whole WASP

trip, right down to the brogans and uneven hems affected by high WASP ladies of

the New England sort. This faction has a reverence for works like The Federalist Papers and Alexis de

Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.

They will beat any passerby within the length of their umbrellas over the head

with stuffy talk about civil society and their other clubby ideals. What would

the lowering Henry Adams-John’s great-grandson-make of the gabble issuing from

these portly minds? Would he say his blessed relative was already in the

pantheon? Would he speculate that this recent gusher of talk and public

genuflection in front of the Holy Founding Fathers is a frightened reaction to

the vast number of immigrants that have come into the United States in the last

20 years? Not only are many without fluency in English but-though they arrive,

for the most part, from nations run by tyrants, extortionists and murderers-few

are political refugees. Most, it would seem, are here for the American Dream,

which is a fancy-falutin’ word for a greedy urge to acquire that with which

Wal-Mart bulges.

The Adamsonians’ tactic is to populate the nation’s capital

city with gigantic idols bearing what purports to be the faces of the Holy

Founding Fathers and, in so doing, overawe the burping, farting multitudes as

they make their way out of the fast-food franchises to meander, stiff-necked,

amid the marble. In this way the grasping, yapping, oh-too-numerous recent

arrivals will be socialized and find their respectful place, not in the

American Dream, but in the American Order.

When it comes to erecting shafts and markers, Holocaust

remembrance is fast becoming a veritable industry. At the rate we’re going, we

may live to see the day that every principal city on the globe has a Holocaust

museum or at least a piece of statuary. What all of this is about, however, is

not so easy to pin down. Is it to spur the hunt for Nazi war criminals and

genocidists? The last crime against humanity committed by a Nazi cannot have

taken place less than 56 years ago-that is, before most of the people currently

alive were born. He who committed that last crime must at least be in his late

70’s, and if he was a person of any rank at the time, he’d have to be in his

80’s or 90’s-thus it is safe to presume that few Nazis are left to be ferreted

out and brought to the bar of justice.

One would hate to think that the United States Holocaust

Remembrance Museum is meant to make us feel vaguely guilty-and, therefore, less

likely to question some of the U.S. government’s policies in the Middle

East-but the thought does occur. Or is the purpose of the Holocaust Museum to

somehow ensure that the crimes of the Nazis are never repeated? If the

prevention of new holocausts is the purpose, they might consider closing the

place. When I went on the museum’s Web site, I could find only one significant

reference to the Rwandan genocide, and that was to Philip Gourevitch’s book, We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will

Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda .

One of the drawbacks to physical memorials is that people

get used to them. So we have grown accustomed to the photographs: the

stripe-clad shapes with the Käthe Kollwitz eyes staring through the barbed

wire, the hills of naked corpses. We have gotten used to knowing these things

were done once a long time ago. We grew up with these images. Much good it has

done.

Let there be fresh images for fresh crimes, and not in

marble on the Mall. This scene is printed in Linda Melvern’s book, A People Betrayed: The Role of the West in

Rwanda’s Genocide : “Jean de Dieu, 11, was curled up, a ball of flesh and

blood, the look in his eyes was a glance from nowhere … without vision;

Marie-Ange, aged nine, was propped up against a tree trunk … her legs apart,

and she was covered in excrement, sperm and blood … in her mouth was a penis,

cut with a machete, that of her father … nearby in a ditch with stinking water

were four bodies, cut up, piled up, their parents and older brothers.”

The Rwandan holocaust has been portrayed in the papers and

on television as tribes, tribal, ancient grudges, hatred beyond the ken of the

modern American brain. Hence, the tribal dispensation is invoked. It stipulates

that murders and atrocities committed by people classified as

“primitive”-although you may only utter the word on pain of losing your P.C.

soul-don’t count. In fact, there was nothing remotely tribal about the Rwandan

holocaust. It was Hitlerian-that is, it was planned with a thoroughness the

Nazis would have admired. Reports have it that, armed with guns and weapons

sold to them by Belgian and French interests with complicitous foreknowledge,

the Hutu faction, organized to the nines, fell on the Tutsis and exterminated

them with the same fine precision of the German death camps-but, if this is

possible, with perhaps more cruelty.

Since these terrible things were done not 60 years ago, but

six or seven, the men and women who did them are still alive and there for the

catching. Instead of congratulating ourselves on having such splendid

ancestors, the time and money might be better spent (by that portion of the

world which styles itself “civilized”) in apprehending the killers. Since the

United States and Europe can buy Milosevic from the Yugoslavs for a billion

dollars, we should be able to get carloads of murderers from

even-more-impoverished Africans for half the price. To bring the French and

Belgians involved to the bar of justice, however, may cost a good deal more.

As for the statues, memorials and museums: Aesthetics aside,

they are each of them unobjectionable-but taken together, they are turning

Washington into a mortuary garden. The grumpy epigones of bygone times and

people, in putting up their temples of ancestor worship, are turning Washington

into a backward-regarding city of whited sepulchers and bleached statuary, a

place of tombs and whispers of the dead.