We would often rather forget all the bad things that happen to us. Embarrassing experiences. Failed classes. Bad break-ups. Unlike in that one episode in Black Mirror, we can’t just go through our memories and relive them whenever we want. Therefore, with our limited storage space, why waste it on the bad stuff? And as someone who is especially forgetful, it is all too tempting to focus on the good things and disregard the bad. However, I know this will never be the case and it never should be. Although there is no point in mulling over the past, there is always a lesson to be learned and that can only be done if we know what happened. As George Santayana, a Spanish philosopher, poet, and literary critic, famously wrote in his book, The Life of Reason, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” And as the year 2016 comes to a close, I have never felt those words ring as true as they do now.
Last week, I visited Hiroshima, Japan. During World War 2, the Americans unleashed the first atomic bomb that led to the destruction of the entire city and deaths of over a hundred thousand Japanese citizens. Over seventy years later, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and Peace Memorial Park are located where the bomb was dropped. Visitors from all over the world, especially students, visit the museum so that they may learn about the horrors of nuclear weapons without ever having to experience it. And although nuclear weapons continue to exist, unfortunately, commanders of these highly destructive arsenals know better than to just launch a missile at the slightest provocation. The world endured nearly fifty years of the Cold War that centered on the threat of nuclear attacks, but not once was a missile launched because they knew about the irreversible effects of an atomic bomb from the horrific experiences in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Unfortunately, nuclear weapons aren’t the only taint on mankind’s history and museums exist all over the world to commemorate these experiences so they may never be repeated again. In Germany (and all throughout the world), numerous museums were created in honor of the thousands of people that died at the hands of the Nazi regime. I had the opportunity to visit the Dachau Concentration Camp, the longest-running concentration camp that was converted into a museum, and learned about all the atrocities committed by Nazis, prisoners, and even ‘neutral’ bystanders alike. The experience was different from reading it in a book or watching it in a movie. Somehow, I was able to really feel the gravity of the offences and internalize the suffering of the people. These weren’t just words on a page or figures on a screen. These were actual human lives lost and ruined.
Looking closer to home, I can also identify museums in the region that have been set up to remember a horrible past that people may want to forget, but know they shouldn’t. In the 1970s, Cambodia experienced one of the most brutal and violent regimes under the Khmer Rouge. Within their brief rule of five years, an estimate of 1.7 million people died due to forced labor, starvation, and murder. One of the most notable places in those dark years was the S-21 Prison, where only seven out of 14,000 prisoners survived. The prison, which used to be a school, is now a museum that commemorates the genocide of roughly one-fourth of the Cambodian population at the time. Recently, the Cambodian court upheld the ruling that destines the leaders of the Khmer Rouge to life imprisonment, regardless of their old age. Although some people argue that the decision came forty years too late, the convictions prove to hold them accountable for their actions and act as a deterrent for all future leaders with similar plans.
Everything I listed happened decades ago; yet people, including those who weren’t even alive at the time, never forget, because these crimes weren’t just committed to an individual or a single society. These crimes were committed against all of humanity and must never be committed again. However, here in the Philippines, historical revisionism has become popular with different versions of history contending with one another and facts being thrown outside the discourse. The gross-scale of corruption and money-laundering, the utilization of torture and kidnapping as acceptable means of information gathering, the permanent scar on the country’s socio-economic development, are all under contestation and evaluation as to whether it was that bad, or whether it even happened in the first place.
I can list down some facts here: Amnesty International estimates that 70,000, 34,000, and 3,240 people were imprisoned, tortured, and killed respectively, the national debt reached 24.4 billion dollars from 8.2 billion just five years prior, and the Marcos family stole at least 3.7 billion dollars with the Supreme Court estimating the actual amount closer to 10 billion dollars. These are just tiny pieces of a much larger puzzle that needs to not only be taught, but internalized and understood as well. And while proper education is necessary in all levels of schooling, museums that showcase the horrors and tell the stories of its victims should supplement the education, as well as provide information to those already out of school. While I do believe that we must not dwell on the past, it would be wrong to forget and ignore it. We must keep ourselves and society informed for not only our sake, but for the generations ahead of us, so that they may never repeat the same mistakes.