Monumental Sins

Several years ago, upon my return from a trip abroad, my work colleagues asked me where I’d visited. Was it Paris? Amsterdam? London?

“Auschwitz,” I said.

Stone silence. Uncomfortable shuffling of feet. Averted glances.

I have an odd penchant for paying visits to sites of self-inflicted human catastrophes. I have stood in stupefied shock before the dome at Hiroshima and the flash shadows on buildings of people going about their daily activities when the bomb exploded.  I have regarded the remains of the Auschwitz gas chambers so hastily blown apart by the panicked SS guards before they force-marched thousands to their deaths in the snows of 1945. I have gazed upon the anguished Holocaust sculpture at Dachau, the prototypical Nazi concentration camp. I visit these places, unromantic as they are, because they are places of sober reflection, and subjects unsuited to our throwaway modern selfie culture. As I see it, a visit to such sites triggers cathartic reflection about the level to which humanity can descend if it is less than careful.  Their psychological and ethical import will endure so long as humans exist.

Now let us turn to American monuments. Monuments there are testaments to victory, to the triumphant forward march of the American Way, regardless of its moral implications. The Washington Monument. The Lincoln Memorial. Mount Rushmore.[1] Amid this ocean of reassurance, where does one turn for proper moral perspective, especially in light of the fact that the country’s diaper-clad president publicly bewails the dismantling of monuments celebrating the achievements of the Confederacy, such as they were?  One wonders if the US, not to mention the world, will survive its infancy.

Where are the American monuments that evoke soul-searching, in the manner of Auschwitz, Hiroshima, or Dachau? The memorial to the Oklahoma City bombing? Ground Zero?  The memorials in those places pay tribute to the innocent dead, as they should.  But those events, while tragic, represent one-offs and provide paltry occasion for higher moral reflection. America in those places was the victim. Where, however, are the memorials to the victims of America? Where is the memorial to the Native Americans wiped out in the nineteenth century, to the Trail of Tears? Or the tribute to the Blacks slaves on whose shoulders the economy of the young United States was built?  Where should Americans go to weep for our accumulated sins?

I suggest Hiroshima.


[1] Those seeking solace from the sting of the US defeat in Vietnam can find it at the Wall in Washington, DC, a memorial dwarfed by surrounding monuments. A strong athlete might jump high enough to place a quarter atop it.