“Leaders have tried to wipe away histories of atrocities by foot-dragging on investigations until new bloodshed dulls memories of the old.”
That line from a New York Times article on Egypt’s military government jumped out at me. Authoritarian regimes know that manipulating collective memory is a key instrument of control, but even democratic societies tinker with remembering and forgetting to pursue ends that have more to do with the exercise of power than the expansion of liberties or the enfranchisement of marginalized people.
Such ambiguity plays beneath the surface of another Times story on divergent European reactions to U.S. spying. In Germany, where recollections of the Gestapo and the Stazi are still vivid, American surveillance has sparked outrage. But in Britain—with the notable exception of the editorial page of the Guardian—reaction to the N.S.A.’s Orwellian activities has been muted, largely because the country has no similar recent history of totalitarianism.
The notion that Western democracy—and its outpost in Israel—is somehow immune to the corruptions of fascism or Stalinism is an implicitly religious idea. This unquestioning sense of fundamental righteousness underlies the ongoing Israeli push for settlements in the West Bank as well as calls for more sanctions against Iran in the U.S. Senate, even though both moves work against these governments’ professed desire for peace and regional stability.
A piece that highlights the interlinking chains of violence, memory and suppression in Egypt is a service to readers as well as an affirmation of the noble idea that journalism is the first draft of history. But an even greater boon would be reportage that draws our attention to the telltale signs—shifts in the interplay between religious rhetoric and political power, for example—that basically decent societies are beginning to lose their way. Prophetic journalism might seem like too much to ask for, but with the traumas of the 20th century still playing out in contemporary geopolitics, any effort to prevent history from repeating itself is worthwhile.