In 2015, a white supremacist open fired in a Black Church in South Carolina, America, killing nine and injuring five others. The shooter confessed that his aim had been to spark a race war. The devastating crime sparked an outrage against the symbols that people such as the shooters continued to use, in particular the flag of the erstwhile Confederate States of America. What came next however, became much more contentious.
The Charleston shooting as it was called led to an increase in the removal of Confederate monuments from various parts of America, a movement that became more paced post the infamous Unite the Right rally that took place in Charlottesville.
This entire chain of events led to the question – should the painful monuments of the American past, the Confederate monuments that seemed to be symbolic of racism, white supremacy, and bigotry be torn down?
Cellular Jail, Andaman (Source- Wikipedia)
Questions like these are not just pertinent to America, they are pertinent to every place in the world which has had wars and battles, opposing viewpoints, occupancy by alien nations, or subjugation of one population by another. A similar question can be raised for some British monuments of India – should the Andaman jail be torn down, site as it was to the capture and torture of some of India’s bravest heroes? It can be the question of German sites of the Third Reich – should the concentration camps of the Nazi era be completely razed?
Auschwitz Camp (source- Wikipedia)
But even in these examples, you’ll be able to see why tearing down monuments is not the answer. Because of course, today the Andaman jail is a tourist site that tells the tale of all those who came through its gate, reminding us of the cost of the freedom we have today. The Auschwitz camp is today a reminder of the brutality and inhumanity we are capable of, a concrete piece of evidence that shuts up all those who dare deny the Holocaust.
Even when such symbols are taken over by extremist or hate groups, tearing them down is not the answer. To erase history like this is to pretend it never happened, and that can only hurt us as a society in the long run. In the alternative history fiction work Fatherland, author Robert Harris imagined a world where the Nazis won the world war and were able to deny the Holocaust, because they were able to cover up all the physical evidence of concentration camps.
It may be extreme to consider, but given the fact that some fringe groups and individuals deny the Holocaust even today, imagine what could happen if we, in a well-meaning spirit of burying the painful past, remove all the concentration camps. Even three decades from this, it would be that much easier to deny the history, or to at least downplay its costs and seriousness.
Keeping monuments alive enables us to keep the past alive. And while this may be used by hate groups for their own gains, they also serve the society by reminding them – this happened, this was real, and the road to this is not as distant as it looks.
History should not be erased, even if seemingly neutral monuments suddenly become the source of conflicts. Because even when some people chose to align a particular statue or place or building with their own agendas, the society at large can prevent them from this association, by never allowing the link to form in their mind. Interestingly, most public opinion polls have shown that Americans are overall not in the favour of removing Confederate monuments. Perhaps because they do realize that these monuments are more than just places for white supremacists to align to – they represent the history that they may not be proud of, but history that has to be accepted and remembered for many reasons, amongst which is to prevent its repetition.
So, instead of debating over things, we should work to prevent movements of people who seek to spread hatred.
By Niharika Rawat