Speak, Memory


Lebanese journalist Amal Makarem is heading an effort to make her compatriots remember their war, which lasted between 1975-90. According to an AFP wire report, she laments: "Thirteen years afterwards, communities still live in total separation, rejecting each other, blaming each other. It is a real time bomb."

According to the story: "Plans for a reconciliation project materialized when Makarem and a nucleus of independent lawyers, writers, journalists and sociologists launched the action in 2001 with a highly-acclaimed seminar held at the UN House here…They plan to establish an association and to set up an archive center and a museum with data, objects and pictures from the civil war."

Makarem accepts "we don't have a clear-cut situation in Lebanon: those who say they are victims were at some point torturers, and vice versa… But if at least everyone would admit his wrongdoings in public, then it is at least a first step toward reconciliation."

The effort has received backing and financing from the European Union "as part of necessary reconciliation efforts to back stability in Lebanon," said Francisco Acosta, the first secretary of the EU delegation in Lebanon.

I'm not one to disagree with my friend Francisco, but the larger ambition in Makarem's project, no matter how admirable in theory, is terribly wrongheaded in fact. For one thing, she misses the point that Lebanon was able to emerge from the war precisely because people from the country's different religious communities were allowed to have different readings of their conflict. Reconciliation, in contrast, implies somehow imposing a unified reading, which would only exacerbate tensions, since everyone would differ over what to agree on.

Second, Makarem and her associates are operating on the basis of an idea that has in recent years become quite popular: that of psychological "closure." Conflicts, it seems, have to be brought to a serene end, or else a country will continue to live, to quote her, on a time bomb.

That's absurd. For all its problems, Lebanon is nowhere near a new civil war, and the fact is that conflicts do not necessarily require imposed closure to be gotten over. People can go on living their lives as individuals quite happily, even if the collectivity remains divided.

That may seem a paradox, but it is one that has allowed Lebanon to prosper in the post-war period, and that has kept it relatively free in a sea of autocracy. Memory is laudable, and Makrem's plans for a museum are fine; but only if the Lebanese are allowed to get what they want out of it, as individuals. She should forget reconciliation and focus, instead, on simply prompting memory.