Reflections on Rude Behavior at Memorial Museums

Bonnie Morris, Ph.D., Women's Studies Program, George Washington University.

     The first time I visited the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., I was excited to see a series of guest-book journals set out for visitors’ comments. A journal-keeper myself since age twelve, I applaud every opportunity of contributing to the public record. Most tourist sites, restaurants and inns keep a guestbook well-displayed to solicit favorable reviews about food and service. But within the pages of the Holocaust Memorial guestbooks, I expected to find serious thoughts on the nature of genocide and anti-Semitism, ringing endorsements of  “never again,” perhaps shocked scrawls from young people encountering the bitterest of Western civilization’s legacy. To my dismay, however, the first comments I saw were these: “We have our own Holocaust happening in the U.S. every single day. It’s called abortion.” And: “This is so sad—but it’s just more proof that our world will never be united until every single person comes to the Lord and Savior Jesus.”

     As I read on, I found similar pages filled with religious propaganda, ranging from gentle to overtly hostile fundamentalist proselytizing. What was so striking about these public writings, left for others like me to contemplate, was their complete refusal to engage in the museum’s educational purpose:  bearing witness to the legacy of anti-Semitism. Although couched in “caring” religious language, some entries more or less called for a world without Jews.

     In my journeys since then, I’ve had the opportunity to visit several other memorial museums structured along similar lines of public education about injustice and racism. These include the Hiroshima Memorial in Japan, dedicated to educating visitors about the impact of the atomic bomb on that city, and the Manzanar National Historic Site monument in the Eastern Sierras of California, which preserves an actual internment camp where Japanese-Americans were forcibly relocated during World War II. Each museum, like the Holocaust memorial in D.C., leads visitors through interactive displays that can easily take up hours of intense perusal, culminating in a guest-book near the end. At both Hiroshima and Manzanar I have noted, too, that visitors exposed to a half-day’s worth of reflective education frequently choose to behave inappropriately or to enter hostile, flippant remarks into the permanent public record.  These entries range from the ever-popular “They deserved it” or “We had to do it” to “Why can’t we lock up the gays?” to a post-9/11 theme of “We should do this to the Muslims/Arabs/terrorists.” The guestbook at Manzanar is noteworthy for one local citizen’s frequent returns (paying a fee each time!) to write the same pejorative anti-Japanese epithets over and over. Park ranger employees acknowledged his contributions with weary smiles when I inquired: oh, yes, him.

      At Hiroshima, I was not visiting by myself but as part of a large college program of American students and faculty. On that day I observed considerable discomfort on the part of my companions, which manifested in different behaviors; and previous American visitors had left angry words in the memorial guestbook: Peace is nothing but a pipe dream! Nuclear arsenals MUST be maintained to maintain order! Just below that, a visitor from England had written in a timid hand May we learn? Below that, a European visitor had added Just nuke America!  There seemed little hope for the progress of world peace on that conflicted page. Outside, the lush verdant hills of Hiroshima were fertilized with the ashes of human flesh. I was moved to observe a moment of silence.  But one of my students, unable to handle the meaning of the visit, but needing to assert his presence, ostentatiously chinned himself on the white marble column of Hiroshima’s eternal flame. And a teaching colleague near me grumbled that the museum was mere anti-American propaganda. Loudly, he declared that “The Japanese are the most racist people in the world.”

     Why is the learning curve failing these visitors?  At all three sites, I’ve seen both young and old Americans—many of whom comfortably identify themselves by name and town--write “THEY DESERVED IT!”  Perhaps it’s pessimistic to worry about this small percentage of the public whose sympathies cannot be aroused by clear evidence of inhumane policies. After all, what about the ninety or ninety-five percent of visitors whose hearts are changed forevermore by a visit to Hiroshima or Manzanar? Their guestbook comments reflect profound spiritual awakening to hard questions from history. And the unconvinced five percent may very well shift their perspectives later—or in private.

      It’s a good starting point for a very important discussion. For instance, can we rely on the educated majority to pursue more humane policies in future?  American society has, however reluctantly, established monuments of reconciliation, multicultural education programs, tolerance campaigns, televised documentaries, school field trips to the Holocaust Memorial, and so on. But what happens when the unconvinced, resentful five percent are elected into office, tipping the balance of power against a more compassionate public? It only takes one dictator; or, closer to home, a 5-4 Supreme Court decision; one judge can change history again forever, let alone the five percent of tourists who bring hate speech to the reconciliation trail.

     I write these words as an educator whose college classes regularly include material on Manzanar, Hiroshima, and Auschwitz. Although these may be sacred sites, the discussion of their meaning—whether in a classroom setting or in those public guestbooks—is a free speech forum, inviting any and all opinions. Some of my Jewish students, mindful that the Holocaust should be addressed reverently, have responded to information on Manzanar and Hiroshima with “So what?” despite the presence of Japanese-American classmates. Some have sent angry emails: “How can you compare Nazi concentration camps with the internment of Japanese-Americans? At least they were safe.” Non-Jewish students, in turn, declare they are “sick of hearing about the Holocaust.”  And still others respond mechanically to information on genocide with “Do we have to write this down? Will it be on the final?”

     There’s work to be done here, and no amount of planned trips to memorial museums will reach every individual at the exact moment they’re willing to take on history’s burdensome weight. We can, however, instruct our students—and friends and colleagues—to think about appropriate speech and behavior at memorial sites. What’s left in a journal for others to see can display as much intolerance, and feel as hurtful to see, as the very exhibits from history we hope won’t be repeated.

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Bob Lexington - 3/6/2009

Your argument relies on the underlying premise that we share a common morality. The evidence suggests strongly that we do not. While all societies condemn theft and murder, and most condemn bigamy and slavery, there are many tenets taken for granted currently in the West which are not shared by other societies, or even by Western societies in the past. Geography and genes determine behaviour and therefore morality. Morality is secondary and not universal. Your inability or unwillingness to treat the different responses to what you find unequivocally determined and fixed with an open mind is a reflection of your own thought processes, and makes you, in my opinion, unsuitable to be a teacher.I

Kenneth Laurence Davis - 2/27/2009

Here's one of those who wrote "They deserved it!".

I get very tired of this line about "my father was set to invade Japan when thank God they dropped the bombs". Well, my father was in the 4th Marine Division, survived Saipan and Iwo, and was set to invade Japan. That doesn't legitimize, in my mind, the slaughter of innocents perpetrated by our government in Japan through crimes such as fire bombing and atomic bombing. If the Japanese showed racism and cruelty, we matched them stroke for stroke.

Walter D. Kamphoefner - 2/24/2009

There you go again! Hijacking a comments list for your own racist agenda. Perhaps you would be willing to participate in a little experiment: we stick you behind barbed wire for three years and you see if it makes any difference to you whether it’s called internment or relocation.
There are fundamental differences between Japanese-American internment and German-[American?] internment during World War II, the most important being that Japanese immigrants did not have the option of naturalization that “white” immigrants did, and even American citizenship did not save those born in America of Japanese ancestry from internment. The only American-born of German parentage who were interned were those who voluntarily accompanied their parents. Even German enemy aliens were interned selectively, not across the board--though no doubt J. Edgar Hoover erred on the side of paranoia.
Unquestionably some loyal German- [North]-Americans were interned, particularly loyal children of Nazi sympathizers. But the greatest injustice in camps like Crystal City involved the German nationals from Latin America--some of them Jewish refugees from Hitler--who were rounded up and interned in Texas. When one young German from Ecuador arrived at Crystal City in 1944, he was greeted by a German American with the words, “Listen up, kid. In this camp we’re all Nazis and anyone who doesn’t agree, we’ll break his skull” (Friedman, Nazis and Good Neighbors, 136-7). That same year, the camp newspaper celebrated the 11 th anniversary of Hitler’s seizure of power with the slogan, “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Fuehrer” (Krammer, Die internierten Deutschen, 125).
So before you start whining a new chapter of victimization, check up on the facts. From all the evidence I have seen, disloyal German-Americans were not treated any worse than loyal Japanese Americans.
Walter D. Kamphoefner

Alexander Freund - 2/24/2009

Dr. Morris makes some important observations about people's responses to a range of museums. I understand that she finds the conduct exhibited by some people troubling. And yet, I feel uneasy when she describes it as 'inappropriate'. Who defines what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior? Dr. Morris judges the authors of the comments by her own moral standards, which she does not spell out and thus postulates as universal. I reject her claim to a moral higher ground, and I disagree with her conclusion that people must be led to learn ‘appropriate’ behavior. Rather than telling people how to behave appropriately at memorial sites, it is better to find out how they behave and then study the implications for education.

All of the messages and comments Dr. Morris describes can be seen in one way or another as common ways of making sense of the past and engaging in present problems. If we consider that polls indicate that up to half of all Americans are Born-Again Christians and other kinds of evangelical fundamentalists, it is not surprising to find many religious comments at the USHMM. This is how many Americans explain the world to themselves and to others -- and they make no exception at the Holocaust Museum. Dr. Morris lacks the kind of empathy for the museum visitors that she demands from them. Much recent research in history didactics and pedagogy shows, for example, that to develop a historical perspective and thus empathy is not a “natural” act but needs to be learned. Dr. Morris is trained in it but seems to forget that most people are not (including the vast majority of undergrads).

At the same time I am baffled by Dr. Morris's claim that it is only about five percent of the visitors who make 'offensive' comments and who are “unconvinced” (who is doing the “proselytizing” here?!). I must assume her claim is based on her statistical analysis of several of the guest books she browsed (hmm, is that appropriate?). I very much doubt that a visit to a memorial site changes the “hearts” “forevermore” of 90-95 percent of visitors or that they have a “profound spiritual awakening to hard questions from history.” Historical learning and thinking are not quasi-religious experiences, as Dr. Morris describes them, they are intellectual (and no doubt emotional) long-term processes.

Her argument, finally, completely comes undone when she tries to draw the lessons. What happens, she asks, if the 95 percent -- the “educated majority” -- elect the “unconvinced, resentful five percent” into office? A cynical response would of course be: Well, look at the last eight years of the Bush government. But the better response is to ask about the logic of this argument: Why would an “educated majority” do this? Perhaps because they are not educated after all. Or perhaps because they are not a majority. The argument is simply illogical. It is also based on a frighteningly naïve understanding of the American political system. To compare a Supreme Court judge to a dictator is scandalous even if one disagrees strongly with the political values of this judge.

I believe that Dr. Morris’s comments derive from sincere concern and good intentions. I suggest, however, that Dr. Morris comes to the wrong conclusions about the museum visitors and the lessons they teach us.

Jonathan Dresner - 2/23/2009

I visited the Hiroshima Peace Museum in '95, after its second wing was opened. What makes that second wing interesting is that it doesn't focus on the effects of the bomb -- the first wing does that very effectively -- but on the historical background, including the role of Hiroshima as a command-and-control center for Japan's Asia forces, military-industrial production, and the decision-making process which led up to the use of the bomb.

In other words, the musuem makes it very clear that the bomb fell in the context of a total war and that Hiroshima, in particular, was a legitimate military target.

The question remains, and this is the museum's point, whether the atomic bomb itself is too powerful to be a legitimate weapon, even in the context of a total war.

Jonathan Dresner - 2/23/2009

You're only off by three orders of magnitude: approximately 110 THOUSAND Japanese were interned. There were more Japanese interned from Hawai'i alone than Italians in the entire US.

Patrick Murray - 2/23/2009

A very large percentage of people are incapable of putting themselves in the shoes of other people and other races.

Having never been to the Hiroshima Peace Museum I would be interested to know whether it points out that the leaders of the Japanese military did not want to surrender after the atomic bombs. Their own leaders wanted them to endure further bombing and invasion.

The Japanese showed no mercy to their conquered peoples, Chinese, Vietnamese,assorted prisoners of war. Neither will they admit responsibility for the Rape of Nanking.

It is a dreadful thing to lose a war, but in America we blame ourselves for winning World War II.

Lewis Bernstein - 2/23/2009

People are boorish, big surprise. The internment of Japanese-Americans was an example of a failure of nerve. As for racism, all nations in that period were racialists or varying persuasions. Unfortunate but true.
You miss context in all of these actions. Auschwitz was an example of the logic of racialism and was one of the high points of the Nazi view of the world. Hiroshima illustrates the logic of war--please remember it was a major military base and an Army headquarters. In other words, a legitimate military target. Never forget the atrocities of the Japanese against the people who fell under their sway. Indignation should not be limited to what happened to POWs. Please remember that the Japanese were responsible for the man made famine that devastated Vietnam in 1944-1945 when approximately 1 million people died of starvation in a 5-month period. The Japanese were not innocent. As an aside to Hiroshima and the use of the atomic bomb, my father was a Marine who was scheduled to rejoin the 2nd Marine Division (after surviving Guadalcanal, Tarawa, and Saipan) for the invasion of Kyushu. The rudimentary planning documents available indicate that the planners expected that division to last about 2 weeks into the invasion--in other words it would have suffered in excess of 30% casualties (90% of them would have been riflemen--most of them would have died). I hold no brief for Japanese innocence. They could have surrendered.

Robert Seward - 2/19/2009

In World War 2 110 out of 270,000 Japanese Americans were interned 11,000 Geman Americans were interned and 3,000 Italians were interned. The most famous mixed race internment camp was at Crystal City. Everyone focuses on the campslike Manzanar which was run by the War Relocation Authority. Crystal City was run by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Looik it up.

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