That experience stood in great contrast to our visit to the Holocaust Museum, which ensures that we will remember the Holocaust and its wider meaning to the same degree that the relative absence of blacks in museums ensures we will forget there was any Holocaust at all. Yet this museum, after the anger and resentment and inspiration that kept me charged and jittery for four days, was the place where I broke apart. Toward the end of the tour, among the footnotes of the exhaustively documented history, were small iron bed frames that once held mentally disabled children who were lethally injected (a fate nominally kinder than the ovens) because their faulty genes, of course, had no place in Hitler’s perfect Aryan nation. There were enlarged photos of a couple such children, naked and entirely unaware of the fate that lay just before them. The spare and simple evidence of such enormous and systematic cruelty, meted out to the most defenseless of the defenseless, staggered me, and my husband led me out of the place in tears.
Out in the burning sun I thought about how swiftly Americans accept and then normalize the monstrous things that go on now, that have gone on for hundreds of years. We are the world power that Hitler killed to be, and we assume we achieved that power far more justly and humanely. But the banality of evil threatens to undo us precisely because of our freakish, unprecedented stature as a world power. We shake off the details at our own risk, as Lincoln and Jefferson pointed out centuries ago. Remembering them as vividly as I did in Washington is about the best homeland security I could have hoped for.