Saturday, January 06, 2007

Holidays in Hell

Sara Robinson

Velcrow Ripper at work

Writing yesterday's piece on Manzanar got me thinking more generally about the landscape of eliminationism.

History is extricably linked to geography -- and the interactions between the two can change faster and more dramatically than we usually realize. My first job out of college was writing (and later editing) for a popular series of travel guides. Not long ago, thinking I might pitch some travel stories, I dug into my 20-year-old travel clips, looking for something I could tuck in with a query letter to persuade an editor of my basic competence.

A quick flip through my faded and yellowing clippings changed my mind. It turned out that some of my best stuff had already been rendered useless by history. There was a review of a top-floor restaurant that used to command sweeping views of Manhattan, before that commercial airliner plowed into the side of the building one clear September morning. A pocket guidebook to a charming Gulf Coast city that was wiped off the map last year by a hurricane. And a vacation piece describing the emerging ski resorts of a quaint Balkan country that imploded two years after the article was published -- and added the phrase "ethnic cleansing" to the American lexicon in the process. Small wonder that one of my top-ten favorite travel books of all time is P.J. O'Rourke's Holidays In Hell, an account of his travel adventures in various political hot spots. You can't read the book without being struck by how fast today's tourist trap can degenerate into tomorrow's killing field.

Stuff like this makes you aware of the degree to which geography is the product of an innocent landscape interacting with far-from-innocent human actions. Even when the evil ends, the land remains polluted with the memory of it. That's what struck me while writing about Manzanar: It's an odd thing to write what basically amounts to a travel article taking you to a monument to loss and suffering, a park that exists now only as a testament to evils that must not be forgotten. Yet the world is full of such places, and they are no less essential to defining our culture than the White House or the Grand Canyon.

A couple years ago, I went to the opening of Scared Sacred, a remarkable independent film by Vancouver filmmaker Velcrow Ripper. Ripper spent five years hauling his camera and a small crew to what he called "the world's Ground Zeros" -- places that bore the memories of the gravest atrocities in human history, many of which were still riven with the pain and secrets and scars. His journeys took him from the killing fields of Cambodia to Bhopal in India; from the threshold between the Israelis and Palestinians on the West Bank to the Nazi death camps; and from the wreckage of Afghanistan to the monuments of Hiroshima.

As Friday night movies go, it sounds like the kind of travelogue that would make you want to just stay home for the rest of the weekend, if not for the rest of your life. But what made the film remarkable, and elevated it from the macabre to the magnificent, was this: In each place he visited, he sought out the signs of resurgence and recovery -- the ways in which people were reaching out over unspeakable loss to create healing and change, and finding their best selves in the process. Ripper's conviction is that that no place, and no people, is beyond hope. Though the will to destroy each other is an inescapable part of our nature, even history's most unspeakable horrors cannot totally overcome the place in our spirits that wills us to rise up and reassert what is good. Any cynic worthy of the name would find this message too optimistic to be taken seriously; but when Ripper's subjects stand amid the wreckage and show us the redemption of their own lives, there's no refuting the essential truth of his experience. (Scared Sacred is out on DVD now; I saw it in my video store just this evening.)

The American landscape is littered with Ground Zeroes of its own -- places where our commitment to our own ideals failed tragically, marking the very ground with shame. Looking over the National Park Service's Manzanar website, I noticed a page that provides what appears to be a rudimentary list of these -- other NPS historical sites that are also monuments to moments we wantonly abandoned our values out of fear, greed, and sheer hatred. A few of the highlights, in their words:

Minidoka Internment National Monument in Idaho was another of the ten World War II camps that held Japanese American Internees.

Bainbridge Island Japanese American Memorial is currently under study by the National Park Service as a memorial to those Japanese Americans removed from the island at the beginning of World War II.

Aleutian World War II National Historical Park tells the story of the “Forgotten War” — the events of the Aleutian Campaign that include the bombing of Dutch Harbor by the Japanese in June 1942 and the evacuation and internment of the Aleuts.

Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka, Kansas, was the site of the landmark Supreme Court decision in 1954 that declared segregated schools to be inherently unequal. Like Manzanar, this site addresses civil rights issues and asks what it means to be an American.

Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site was created to commemorate an event that typifies the treatment of American Indians in the westward expansion of our nation. The creation of this site is an example of the National Park Service addressing darker sides of our history and choosing to present them as part of our complex legacy.

Andersonville National Historic Site in Georgia was the location of a Confederate military prison during the Civil War. Many Union soldiers died there due to extremely poor conditions. The site exists today to tell the stories of all prisoners of war.

This is, of course, only a drop in the bucket -- the tiny handful of such places that somehow, finally, ended up in NPS hands. But most of us have other such places of remembering not far from our own homes -- state parks and roadside monument markers, museums and battlefields and graveyards, bridges and bus stations and courthouse steps -- or simply bare unmarked lots that locals still tell stories about. You probably have one near your own house. We should make a list. (Add your entry in the comments.)

Those of you with right-wing relatives can hear them tuning up in your heads right now: Why should we waste our beautiful minds remembering places like this; or our precious vacations visiting them; or our tax dollars buying them up and turning them into state parks and national monuments? It's just more liberal America-is-always-wrong crap; who needs it?

They don't get that preserving these places, and taking our children to them, isn't making America wrong. In fact, it's an essential part of making it better.

From the beginning, the United States dared to set a higher bar for equality, democracy, and justice than any other nation that's ever existed -- and push that threshold farther with every successive generation. (There are plenty of countries that surpass us in actual performance now, but even they achieved this by aiming at standards we were the first to set.) That commitment is the fundamental precondition from which the rest of our prosperity and peace have flowed. Throughout our history, the more fiercely we have honored it, the better we have done, by every measure, as a nation.

We expect better from ourselves. Yet we also tend to forget that when you aim for what may well be an impossible ideal, you're going to fall short of the mark far more often than you actually hit it. America has fallen short many times. But what has made us great is our dogged determination to hold on to our shattered ideals anyway, and keep trying to do better -- the same will to overcome that's at the heart of Scared Sacred.

So we visit places like Manzanar to improve our aim -- to sharpen our understanding of how failure happens; to remind us of the sobering results of giving up on that commitment; and to find the inspiration to keep trying. And we preserve them because, while the human memory of an atrocity dies with those who lived through it (it's not a coincidence that these new camps are now being built just as the generation that can remember the crimes of Manzanar has begun passing from the scene), the durable landscape has a unique ability to record their story, and offer it as a testament and warning to future generations.

One my New Year's Resolutions is to look for these places, and spend more time in them. Maybe I'll see you there.

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