A few years ago I wrote a piece about the way that as a society we tend to forget past horrors and end up glorifying things that we surely wouldn’t, if we could manage a little empathy for people who were basically no different to us.
A further experience in this vein happened recently when I went around the Colosseum in Rome. Some frankly pretty shitty stuff happened to people there. People who were sentenced to death “ad bestias” were killed by wild animals in front of 75,000 baying spectators. I suspect a significant number were crying for their mothers while it happened. Unarmed people pitted against gladiators, slaves forced to kill or be killed. Thousands of people put to death brutally and publicly; imagine being pulled from a dark cell into the bright sunlight of an arena and thousands of people shouting and cheering as you are chased by a starving animal, or as you have to decide whether you are going to attempt to stave off death for a few minutes, possibly at the cost of another person’s life.
So when visiting the place where these atrocities happened, what kind of demeanour would you expect from the visitors? Smiles and selfies, laughter and chatter wouldn’t be the main thing for me. And yet, times hundreds, people walking round, posing for photos, and even the ones who read the factual, non-glorifying information that set all of this out clearly, grinning like idiots.
This may seem like a small complaint – after all it was a long time ago wasn’t it? Well, no, it wasn’t really – in evolutionary terms the people were indistinguishable from us, and a couple of thousand years is a blink. The speed at which our system of ethics, culture and values has developed is astonishing by comparison, but it can clearly move quickly – in any direction.
This is a distasteful comparison, but I am going to make it – how many years will it be before visitors to Auschwitz are trooping around in laughing groups, deciding whether to be photographed with the guy in the SS Guard uniform or the one in the prison uniform? I hope: never, but I wouldn’t bet that it won’t be happening a couple of thousand years from now.