Tuesday, April 06, 2004

A couple of years ago, a visiting friend from South Africa and I decided to attend a popular Portland social event, a social hour held in an branch of the art museum here. It is called museum after hours - people stop by after work, have a drink, listen to some music, meet people, and act cultured. Or at least trendy. I hadn't been to this before, but we had spent part of the day at the art museum, and it seemed like a nice thing to do before heading home.

So we headed across the courtyard and through the entrance of the Masonic Temple. The center of the building includes a several story ballroom where the reception was held, and you had to step down to the floor level. Wrapping around all sides of the ballroom is what I will call a balcony on the main floor, basically a wide hallway and railing which is quite convenient for people watching the activities on the ballroom lower floor.

As we entered, there was signage indicating that the balcony area was housing a photography exhibit for the museum at the moment, and people were casually circulating, drinking wine, chatting, and glancing at these photos.

Now picture yourself surrounded by well dressed, young, mostly beautiful, upper class people, who are engaged in the fine art of picking each other up, and then noticing the subject of the art they are so casually viewing as they stroll happens to be genocide. Fanaticism. Holocaust. Stark images in black and white, the exhibit is a group of photos including some of these by photographer Gilles Peress.

I cannot fathom taking these images for granted.

I cannot imagine walking through this exhibit and talking at all, but if any words escaped, how could they be anything but whispers of anguish?

Faced with the stark contrast between plush surroundings and superficial interactions of our "neighbors" scored by light laughter and swinging jazz tunes coming from the stage, and the black and white images, simple and harsh in their depiction of cruelty, grief, despair, hatred, the most fundamental evidence of our core flaws as humans, the two of us fled. I felt like we had entered a room full of zombies - both alive and dead - each taunting the other.

Today is the International Day of Reflection on the Genocide in Rwanda. The day chosen to honor the dead and attempt to learn from this past. And I wonder, what have we learned? I wonder about the antidote the Face of Fanaticism web site asks us to imagine.

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