Palaima: History gives us guidance in dealing with national tragedy

Find this article at:

Palaima: History gives us guidance in dealing with national tragedy

Austin American-Statesman Saturday, September 17, 2011

The cover of the Sept. 12 Newsweek shows a solitary plane in the kind of spacious blue sky we praise in “America, the Beautiful.” On this background in white letters we read: “9/11 Ten Years of RESILIENCE.” Three words in black, “FEAR GRIEF REVENGE,” are placed vertically above the much larger word “RESILIENCE.”

This image conveys one take on a national moment of suffering and how we have lived through 10 years of history in reaction to it: the color-coded dark emotions of fear and grief fueling the equally dark human instinct to take vengeance. The Newsweek editors believe what we ourselves want to believe about what we have been through and where we are now. We are resilient. We have bounced back to where we were before.

I think all Americans have their own ideas about where we stand a decade after 9/11. Our opinions probably differ about whether we took the right paths as individuals or as a nation. Rather than discuss such potentially polarizing matters, I want to make some observations on how we use history and historical memory to deal with tragedy and the grief that stems from it.

It is a tricky subject. A senior honors thesis student, Abraham Callahan, recently asked me why Thucydides, the father of scientific history, had bothered analyzing the motives and causes of mass killings of human beings in civil wars and political revolts. Thucydides asserts that human nature is constant and will lead to such things happening again, presumably no matter how much history people have read.

Fortunately, intelligent human beings, from the Greek soldier-playwright Aeschylus to leaders of our nation after the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., have thought about the nature of collective grief after violent public acts, where our emotions want to take us, and what happens if we let them take us there.

One way we might confront an atrocity like the Holocaust is by placing it beyond human understanding. Claude Lanzmann, whose long documentary about the Holocaust, “Shoah,” focuses on personal testimonies Continue reading